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"CHRIST TRIUMPHANT": Great Hymn Tunes of the Twentieth Century

Guiting Power (Christ triumphant, ever reigning)
Coe Fen (How shall I sing that majesty?)
Old Yeavering (Like a mighty river flowing)
Cypress Court (Father, hear the prayer we offer)
HOLST Gustav
Thaxted (I vow to thee, my country)
Bow Brickhill (We sing the praise of him who died)
I .Here I am, Lord (I, the Lord of sea and sky)
Michael (All my hope on God is founded)
San Rocco (Give me the wings of faith)
Living Lord (Lord Jesus Christ)
Sine Nomine (For all the Saints)
Love Unknown (My song is love unknown)
ARCHER Malcolm
Vicars' Close (Praise the Lord of Heaven)
TAYLOR Cyril Abbot
's Leigh (Glorious things of thee are spoken)
Down Ampney (Come down, O love divine)
TERRY Richard
Runciman Highwood (Hark what a sound)
ARCHER Malcolm
Redland (King of Glory, King of Peace)
Salisbury (Holy Spirit, ever dwelling)
East Acklam (For the fruits of his creation)
HARRIS Sir William
Alberta (Lead, kindly light)
Lord of the Years (Lord, for the years your love has kept and guided)
Thornbury (Thy hand, O God, has guided)

Wells Cathedral Choir, Rupert Gough (organ) Malcolm Archer
Hyperion CDP12101 [67' 40"]
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Some of my best arguments have been about hymns, until I came to realise that musical value judgements have precious little to do with it. Hymns are part of us from our childhood days and our affections centre around those we learnt to love then, each intimately bound up with some half-forgotten face, event or association. Of course, new favourites are added later, especially for those whose life continues to revolve around a church, and almost manage to stand shoulder to shoulder with our first loves (but they still seem to be new hymns). And what a shock when we attend another congregation and find that they nurture a collective love for a completely different set of hymns and, horrors of horrors, sing some of our most-cherished words to a different tune (and won't change it for anybody). This was where my best arguments started and how misguided they were. It's no use pointing to clumsy harmonies, overworked sequences, weak cadences, bits of hymns that sound like bits of other hymns and the like; and never let the words "bad taste" cross your lips, for you're arguing with a person's psyche.

When I say "us", I suppose I should make it clear at this point that I am talking about English-speaking Christians, and mostly Protestants. Those who come from Catholic-dominated countries are not brought up to communal hymn-singing at all (Italians who move towards Protestantism find the hymns the hardest part of it); the German Lutheran church has its repertoire of classics that sound severe, almost unmelodious, to us, but have deep meaning for them; Scandinavian countries can, I believe, boast a very fine hymn repertoire scarcely known outside their own countries. And, though many hymns of the Anglican tradition are equally well-known on either side of the Atlantic, there is a long line of American hymns going back to pioneer days and leading to the present. One such, "Here I am, Lord", is included here in spite of the series title "The English Hymn", and the booklet writer's notes sum up British ambivalence towards the American style. "The refrain walks a knife-edge between humility and sentimentality, and singers need to be aware of this spiritual danger". These singers are certainly fairly laid-back, but aren't they missing the point? No commandment in the Bible says "Thou shalt not go over the top" and would it really have been such an awful thing to do to give this refrain its head? But I shall end up arguing again.

What I am trying to say is that "Great hymns of the twentieth century" is a risky title that is likely to mean in reality a selection of those with particular meaning for the compiler of the anthology. There are a certain number of tunes over which there is an almost unanimous consensus (at least one, Vaughan Williams's "Sine Nomine", is here in a slowish performance which substitutes a certain majesty for the energetic drive we more normally hear; Basil Harwood's "Thornbury" is perhaps another). These can qualify as great, but it is surprising how few of them there are. So if Hyperion are planning an extended series based on the English hymn, I feel they should set aside the "great" angle and either plan a full-scale musicological-historical investigation (the note-writer here comments on the authors and composers of the individual hymns but offers no overall introduction or conclusion), or else invite the chosen choirs simply to present a string of their favourites.

I rather suspect that this is more or less what has happened here anyway. In Wells taste tends toward the high Anglican, with Malcolm Archer favouring broad, dignified tempi. His own two tunes say much for his predilections and "Vicars' Close" is one of the high points of the disc. Elsewhere, as I have already hinted, the automatic application of this approach no matter what the hymn is not always happy. So, while the performances are good enough to provide a very moving experience for those whose choices and tastes are close to those of this choir (I am sure their Wells congregation will love it), neither in blend nor in ensemble nor in tonal range are they quite good enough to convince, say, a Czech Catholic or an Orthodox Bulgarian that this is music worth hearing for its own sake.

Hyperion have produced some wonderful records of British Cathedral choirs over the years and I hope the next in this series will inspire a more positive response. And they'd better look to their type-setting, too, for somebody's portable has come to grief every time the hymn-texts spread on to the next page. Try following through "Thornbury" and you'll find you have to turn back and forth three times to stay with the choir. This didn't happen in the days of the manual typewriter. Computers can be obtuse servants and treacherous masters.

Christopher Howell

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