I am frequently asked, “What do you listen to?” when folks find out how conservative I am.1 I do believe that we ought to be very discriminate in what we listen to, for this drives our appetites for what is sung and played in corporate worship. Indeed, I consider it nothing less than scandalous that many “solid” evangelical and fundamentalist institutions, while professing to believe the great doctrines of the Christian faith, do not produce excellent recordings of the great masterpieces of western sacred music.2 And what music we allow ourselves to indulge in can easily render our taste base. When some people ask us about such-and-such a song, or the artist so-and-so, we find ourselves somewhat nonplussed; we have no real desire to sing that song or their music, because, when you’re listening to the Sixteen or John Eliot Gardiner or the Kings College Choir on a regular basis, these fads and hipsters aren’t even on your radar.
More positively, I want to take a few posts to recommend some recordings of sacred music in the English language outside the particularly “classical” world.3 This list is not exhaustive, and I’d be happy to have readers make their own recommendations in comments. The recordings I will recommend feature traditional hymns and psalms of the best quality, both in tune and (in the case of hymns) texts. This is not to say that the recordings will be flawless in their selections (they may include hymns of dubious theology or quality), but for all, the balance of selections is excellent. At this point, I am bracketing off Christmas recordings (the Christian holiday where the whole world sings good hymns). In addition, I have neither the ear or finances to be a true audiophile, so the quality of recording itself is not something I am including in my considerations. Today, I will recommend recordings of great hymns and anthems sung by choirs. In future posts I will suggest some recordings of psalms and instrumental hymns.
Recordings of Choral Hymns and Anthems
1. Best Loved Hymns. Choir of King’s College Cambridge and Stephen Cleobury. (EMI, 2001.) It’s hard to believe this recording is ten years old now. I highly recommend it. This CD opened up to me the world in great hymns like “Come Down, O Love Divine,” “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken” (to Abbot’s Leigh), “O What their Joy and their Glory Must Be,” “All My Hope on God is Founded,” and “My Song is Love Unknown.” It showed me that there were people in this world who still sing great hymns.
2. Sing Ye Heavens: Hymns for All Time. Cambridge Singers and John Rutter. (Collegium, 2000.) Excellent.
3. Alleluia: An American Hymnal. Kansas City Chorale and Charles Bruffy. (Nimbus, 1998.) The “Sunday Morning” section is quite good.
4. A Vaughan Williams Hymnal. Choir of Trinity Chollege and Richard Marlow. (Comuter Classics, 1997.) A nice selection showing the great contribution of superb hymn tunes discovered or composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams.
5. Be Still My Soul: The Ultimate Hymns Collection. Various. (Decca, 1996.) A compilation of older recordings of classic hymns by various choirs.
6. Evening Prayer: Purcell Anthems and Sacred Songs. Chanticleer and Capriccio Stravagante. (Teldec Classics, 2003.) This is borderline classical, but Purcell’s English anthems are something you ought to know, and Chanticleer has a nice recording of them.
7. Oxford Church Anthems. Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford and Stephen Darlington. (Nimbus Records, 1995.) English anthems would probably be an acquired taste for many of our readers, but the dividends are rewarding.
8. O God, My Heart is Ready: Psalms and Hymns from St. Thomas Choir New York. St. Thomas Choir of Men and Boys and Gerre Hancock. (Koch International Classics, 1993.) Psalms and hymns by an American boys choir that sounds awfully English.
9. Hymns of Heaven & Earth. Saint Clement’s Choir and Peter Richard Conte. (Dorian Recordings, 1998). The Saint Clement Choir sounds great singing a pretty good selection of hymns.
10. The Joy of God: Great Hymns Across the Ages. The Choir of Yorkminster Park Baptist Church, Ronald S. Jordan, and Catherine M. Palmer. (Marquis Music, 2007.) This recording is not on the top of my list, but still worthy of consideration.
11. Faire is the Heaven: Hymns and Anthems. Choir of St John’s, Elora, Noel Edison, and Paul Halley. (Naxos, 2003.) The hymns on this album (Abide with Me; Jesu, the Very Thought of Thee; O Thou who Camest from Above; My Song is Love Unknown) sound great and make it worth the recommendation here. Be advised that this album has some anthems (and some of a more modern sound) that for some might take some getting used to.
12. The Complete New English Hymnal, Vol. 3. The Choir of Ely Cathedral and Paul Trepte. (Priory, 2001.) This is volume three of an impressive project by Priory records to record all the hymns and anthems of the New English Hymnal of the Anglican church. I would imagine that others in this series could be found quite rewarding, but I gravitated toward this one because it contains great hymns like “Creator of the Stars at Night,” “Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending,” “Tell out, my soul, the Greatness of the Lord,” “King of Glory, King of Peace,” “Jerusalem the Golden,” and “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds.” Solid.
13. A New Heaven. The Sixteen and Harry Christophers. (Decca, 2009.) Here are more English anthems, this time sung by Harry Christophers’ great ensemble, the Sixteen.
14. Music for Holy Week. Choir of King’s College, Cambridge and Philip Ledger. (EMI, 1995.) I have this toward the bottom of the list because it has a high amount of non-English sacred music. Still, it has a good amount of English hymns and anthems, and is surely worth a recommendation.
15. O Magnum Mysterium. Robert Shaw Chamber Singers and Robert Shaw Festival Singers and Robert Shaw. (Telarc, 2000.) See “Music for Holy Week,” above.
16. Samuel Sebastian Wesley: Anthems. Choir of Clare College, Cambridge and Christopher Robinson. (Naxos, 2007.) Because you need to have a recording of “Ascribe unto the Lord.”
- There are many questions embedded in this matter that would make for good discussion. I don’t think it’s particularly helpful merely to assume that listening to sacred music all the time is a good thing. For example, do we take the name of God in vain when sacred music fills the background? I do not think so, but we ought to pause to consider the ways we listen to sacred music that reveres the name of God and the ways that blaspheme him. Just because listening to sacred music is part of our accepted culture does not mean that we ought to accept it uncritically. And while I am thankful for the rich resources we have to listen to recorded music, we should nevertheless seriously consider the limits and meaning of the medium. Are we, by listening to well-produced and digitally edited recordings, becoming immune to the importance of producing great music ourselves? Are we becoming so refined in our taste by listening to well produced music that we have no ability to appreciate the volatility and imperfections of a live performance? [↩]
- To be honest, I fear that sales and revenue, as well as marketing the newly printed octavos, dictate what is recorded more than other more important factors. [↩]
- In other words, it goes without saying that you ought to own classic Renaissance works, the B-minor mass, St. Matthew and St. John passions, Christmas oratorio, Bach’s classic cantatas, the Messiah, the German Requiem, Mozart and Faure‘s Requiem, Mendelssohn’s Elijah, etc. If you want an excellently priced and great sounding set that gets into Bach’s best great works be sure to check Gardiner’s set out. [↩]