Hymns From the Heartland

Review by: David Vernier


Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 8

If you look at the track list—30 hymns on two CDs—you’ll see such titles as Abide With Me, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, Amazing Grace, and When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, all familiar to almost anyone with experience in the Christian church. However, what will get the attention of many hymn-lovers of a certain time and tradition are the other entries, such as I Surrender All; Great Is Thy Faithfulness; Leaning on the Everlasting Arms; How Great Thou Art; The Old Rugged Cross; What a Friend We Have in Jesus; Blessed Assurance. If these “old-time” hymns have familiarity and meaning for you, then you will find this collection an especially welcome treasure, as this body of hymns, mainstays of traditional Protestant churches—and certainly of mainstream evangelical congregations in the U.S.—from the 19th to the latter 20th centuries, is sadly becoming increasingly rare in the churches where it originated, and even more difficult to find on decent recordings.

According to a recent study, nearly 50 percent of Protestant churches now say they use electric guitars or drums in worship; traditional hymns—and hymnbooks—have been jettisoned in favor of pop, rock, alternative music, and even hip-hop songs, led by praise choruses, the words projected on big, overhead screens. Times change, but what these churches don’t seem to appreciate is the profound value and power of their own long traditions, the very things that make them unique and importantly separate from the secular world and its institutions.

The thing about the traditional church hymns, going back through the 18th and 19th centuries to the Lutheran chorales and even to the Scottish and Genevan Psalters, is their simplicity, their musical language detached from particular and changing popular styles, and the often eloquent and colorful poetic imagery and theological references not only immediately accessible but easily memorable, and meaningful. These were not tunes designed to capitalize on and just as easily shift with the changing winds of popular culture; they were created to bring together a like-minded group of people, to bring together voice and spirit in a collective affirmation of faith and belief. They have endured because they are not rooted in popular taste, and because generations of Christians have grown up singing them together.

The tunes of the best hymns are strong (Abide With Me; Amazing Grace; A Mighty Fortress; Be Still, My Soul), catchy (Leaning on the Everlasting Arms), elegant (Be Thou My Vision); and some are just simply beautiful (I Surrender All), and supported by sophisticated harmony (Great Is Thy Faithfulness; The Old Rugged Cross). These are songs that don’t need a band, microphones, or production gimmicks; they can be sung anywhere, anytime, with a piano, a cappella, with harmony or without, by voices both exceptional and ordinary. The shortsighted decisions of many church leaders to abandon this incredibly rich legacy is not only a shame on a purely musical level, it is breaking a most significant tie that has bound Christians together for hundreds of years in a way that no contemporary, here today/gone tomorrow pop tunes will be able to do. And that is why recordings such as this one are so important to those for whom these hymns are dear, especially when there are fewer and fewer church communities where they are still heard and sung.

Fortunately, the Portara Ensemble, a Nashville, Tennessee-based chamber choir, and its super accompanist, Polly Brecht (both organ and piano), know exactly how to present these hymns for people who really know and love them, and who just might want to sing along (and even harmonize!). The arrangements are straightforward—with some very tasteful and appropriate piano or organ intros and occasional interludes—the verses are sung in varied forms (unison, a cappella, accompanied), and the harmonies, while sometimes not exactly what you know from your old hymnal, are well suited and even if “different” they are delightfully, imaginatively so—and always easily singable. Although the most basic information (authors, composers, and dates) regarding the 30 hymns’ provenance is included, the creator(s) of some settings—the very lovely accompaniments to Blessed Assurance, I Surrender All, and It Is Well With My Soul, for instance—unfortunately are not credited.

The singing is uniformly excellent (nice sectional unisons!), and it’s all expressed with a genuineness that’s quite affecting. The producers did manage to sneak in a couple of “newer” hymns, which may not be familiar to some listeners—Majesty (written by Jack Hayford in 1977), In Remembrance (from 1972), and a 2008 arrangement of the spiritual Give Me Jesus by Dwayne Davis. And while the flavor of the former two is certainly closer to pop tradition than the rest of the collection, the latter is a setting that fits perfectly and would make a nice addition to any church choir’s repertoire.

Shall We Gather at the River; Let Us Break Bread Together; Crown Him With Many Crowns; How Can I Keep from Singing—these are just a few more of the revered hymns that you will find here. The collection concludes with a first prayerful and ultimately rousing rendition of the Isaac Watts/Lowell Mason hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, leaving you uplifted and quite probably ready to go back and listen to some of your favorites all over again. The sound, from First Lutheran Church in Nashville, is very good, the balance slightly skewed toward the soprano in the ensemble passages (which is where the melodies are), and the piano exhibiting a bright-toned quality in upper registers. The organ and choir together are well matched, with the choir slightly forward.

My only problem writing this review came when I tried to find out more about the artists—even the choir’s own website gives very little information about the choir itself, and, strangely, doesn’t mention this recording. The liner notes, which thankfully (although the singing is as clear as can be) include the full texts for all of the hymns (it’s those middle verses that aren’t always so familiar), offer no bio of the choir or its founder/director Shreyas Patel. I’m not complaining—just wanting to know more about such a fine group of singers. Recordings of this repertoire, especially performed without embellishment or all kinds of production enhancement—in other words, the way it is intended to be sung—are rare enough; but a newly produced collection of this size and quality is truly something to celebrate—and to keep close by.

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