Thursday, June 19, 2014

Great Hymns Find Fresh Treatment

Instrumental albums are not terribly popular among Christians, and when most American Christians hear instrumental music, it is typically bland or syrupy versions of comfortable and safe hymns played as background. Rarely do we see skillfully played, fresh versions of some of the world's most meaningful music, and so believers should not be surprised when few take their music seriously.

Richard Souther, however, is no ordinary musician. His own compositions are beautiful and uplifting. And though he primarily works with a palette of keyboards and synthesizers, his recent project, Hymns Revisited, has the solo piano shining like a candle in a darkened chapel. Souther's arrangements and sensitive playing are simply remarkable.

The album opens with "Morning Has Broken," introduced with an improvisation that is like opening slowly onto a new day, like waking gently. This song is followed by rendition of "Fairest Lord Jesus" which manages to be stately without sounding pompous. Next comes one of my favorites of this project: "It Is Well With My Soul." Here Souther melds the joy and fire of the original tune with flights on the keys (particularly the left hand work) that accentuate the quiet power of faith.

Much of "I Surrender All" sounds stark, almost naked, as the chorus sounds like a lone voice crying out to a God who is sure to save. Here there are also flurries and improvisations that never stray so far from the original as to be unrecognizable, but which put me in my mind a heart led by the wind of the Holy Spirit. Next comes "Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus," a good follow up as it sounds less like evangelism than a word spoken to the troubled, surrendering soul.

For some reason, iTunes and Amazon have marked "Softly and Tenderly" as explicit. Explicit what? Explicitly beautiful piano? Explicitly true to the beauty of the old tune? Explicitly warm and inviting? Explicit in expressing a faith so deep it needs no words?

Next comes "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" sounding like heart dancing.  A solo piano version of this tune can go very wrong, by making the song either too maudlin or so much like a romp that the sense of joy is lost. But Souther keeps at just the right tempo. This is followed by "Come Thou Font Of Every Blessing," which like the first three tracks is stirring and soulful. I've always loved this song, so I think I'm particularly sensitive to poor versions of it. This is one of the finest I've ever heard.

The last two songs on Hymns Revisited are "I Need Thee Every Hour" and "His Eye Is On The Sparrow." The first played like the gorgeous and thoughtful prayer it should be. I find myself inwardly bowing as I hear it, wanting to be closer to the great God it addresses. The latter also is also like prayer, but not the expression one gives to God, but what God returns in the conversation.

So many musicians would take these hymns and turn them in to Liberace-like opportunities to show of their ability to add flourishes, drawing attention to the player and not the music. Others merely render the melodies and assume that because the songs are traditional, they will move the listener. Both approaches diminish the power of these great songs and hide the very God they purport to reveal. Many people would claim that without the words, there is nothing to be said. But Richard Souther's album is so well done it demonstrates the scope and love of a living God. I cannot recommend it more highly.

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