To complement our annual list of the year's best albums in popular music, Christianity Today also offers a selection of notable sacred music recordings, primarily in the choral and classical genres.
We again asked Jane Holstein, an editor with Hope Publishing Company and an arranger, choral clinician, organist, worship planner, and concert artist, to compile this list of fine albums.
Bob Jones University Singers and Orchestra
Beyond All Praising [Soundforth]
This easy-listening presentation of 15 choral anthems begins ginning with a festive setting by Richard Nichols based on "All Creatures of Our God and King." There's a splendid melody from Gustav Holst's symphonic work "Jupiter" (from The Planets) that was later adapted into hymn form by Ralph Vaughan Williams [sung in Britain to "I Vow to Thee, My Country"]. Here, the tune is set to a 1982 text by another British writer, Michael Perry, for which the CD is named: "O God beyond all praising, we worship you today." Dan Forrest shows his adept ability to take this majestic hymn and arrange and orchestrate it with the grandeur due. In contrast, he sets the Isaac Watts text "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" in a compelling Celtic ballad, complete with the sweet, melodious sound of uilleann pipes (Irish bagpipes), featuring the traditional English melody, "O Waly Waly." An original anthem by Molly Ijames, "A Triune Prayer," provides a meditative reflection based on a poignant intercession to the Trinity with poetic text by Chris Anderson. Mary McDonald sets Samuel Wesley's words "O for a thousand tongues to sing" in the dynamic, original work, "His Glorious Praise in Song." Overall, it's a solid listening experience of church anthems, with each selection tastefully orchestrated and performed with dignity.
All Glory Be to God on High (Triune Music)
American organist-composer Charles Callahan, who has spent a career in church music with hundreds of compositions in print, recently completed this project featuring the organ at St. Michael Church in Wheaton, Illinois. The album represents literature that uplifts and reminds one that the organ is still a force in church music. The versatile tone pallet takes the listener from dramatic and full sounds to gentle and warm, featuring twenty musical jewels from Handel and Bach through selections from the late 19th and early 20th century. Callahan completes the recording with four of his own hymn reflections including "Jesus Loves Me," a tender rendition that features rich strings with the melody rising above on a single, pure flute stop. Similarly, "Prelude on Three Hymntunes" conveys Callahan's ability to write with simple color and clarity, allowing the listener to reflect on the meaningful texts associated with these tunes. Completing the recording, a joyous fanfare based on "Now Thank We All Our God" allows the cathedral to really shine with acoustics that are not often found in American churches.
Brahms on Brass (Opening Day)
Chances are if you've ever heard brass music, you've heard the Canadian Brass—five guys acclaimed for their remarkable abilities, who over the last four decades have recorded 90 albums with millions of sales. Brahms on Brass displays a variety of moods and styles in the transcriptions of keyboard music written by Johannes Brahms. Starting with his Sixteen Waltzes, Opus 39, the ensemble gives a spirited performance of these lighter pieces that were originally written for piano duet. Displaying their unquestionable agility and lyricism, you sense the entertaining quality of these little gems with their folk-like melodies. But it's the second half of the CD that really explores the sacred, with music from near the end of Brahms' life. His Eleven Chorale Preludes for Organ, Op. 122, are full of depth and reflective spirituality. I've performed these works as a church organist, but here heard nuances and expressive melodic lines as if for the first time. The lovely Christmas chorale "Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen" (Lo, how a rose e'er blooming) is a fine example of exemplary tone from these renowned showmen.