CDs: Te Deum: A Celebration in Song & When in Our Music God Is Glorified

Te Deum: A Celebration in Song, John Ferguson, organist and director of the St. Olaf Cantorei. G.I.A. Publications: Cassette (CS-321) $9.95, CD (CD-321) $15.95.

Contents: Holy God, We Praise Your Name; All You Works of the Lord (Jennings); Sanctus (Durufle); Holy, Holy, Holy; Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence; Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming (Scholz); Ding Dong! Merrily on High (Jennings); Hark! The Herald Angels Sing; Lamb of God (Christiansen); Were You There; In Thee Is Gladness (Kallman); The Head That Once Was Crowned with Thorns; Alabare (Nelson); Halle, Halle, Halle (Bell and Maule); Thy Holy Wings; Jacob's Ladder (Kallman); Amazing Grace; Nunc Dimittis (Stanford); The Day You Gave Us, Lord, Is Ended.

When in Our Music God Is Glorified, John Ferguson, organist. Congregational Song Series Number 1. Association of Lutheran Church Musicians. PO Box 16575, Worcester, MA, 01601. Cassette $10.95, CD $14.95.

Contents: Praise to the Lord, the Almighty; When in Our Music God Is Glorified (Engelberg); Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying; Savior of the Nations, Come; Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful; Ah, Holy Jesus; Jesus Christ Is Risen Today; Heleluyan; We Will Lay Our Burdens Down; Praise, Praise, Praise the Lord; The King of Love My Shepherd Is; Jesus Still Lead On/For All the Saints; When in Our Music God Is Glorified (Fredericktown); Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.

John Ferguson, professor of organ and church music at St. Olaf College, has given us a treasure of congregational song in his two latest recordings.

The first, Te Deum: A Celebration in Song, was recorded live with his Cantorei Choir at St. Olaf's Boe Chapel with a large congregation on hand to join in the singing of the hymns. Ferguson begins the hymn festival with his own setting of "Holy God, We Praise Your Name," in which he masterfully interweaves the ancient Te Deum chant over and against the hymn tune GROSSER gott. This creative and masterful skill is evident in all the hymns and anthems that follow.

Scholz's "Lo How a Rose" setting is a lush wash of sound created by piano, organ, flute, handbells and wind chimes. Ferguson's setting of "Were You There" is the most stark, yet most profound hymn on this recording, accompanied only by oboe and flute. The baptismal hymn "Thy Holy Wings" is sung by unison women in a way so perfectly matched and interpreted that one thinks it is a soloist singing an Italian art song.

The other hymns on the recording are also given a unique interpretation that is based on their text. The hymn texts are interpreted and explored in such a way that the listener feels as if he or she is hearing the hymn for the first time. Then, like an arrow, Ferguson's accompaniment shoots the text straight to the heart.

This approach to hymnody is also evident in Ferguson's second recording When In Our Music. Like Te Deum, it was recorded live with a mass choir and congregation of nearly 2,500 people at Minneapolis' Central Lutheran Church. Ferguson presides at the organ, and all hymn arrangements are his unless noted otherwise on the CD jacket.

"Subtle" and "creative" are the two adjectives that describe this recording. Beyond the masterful control and precision Ferguson exhibits at the organ, worshipers notice that text guides his creativity. "Ah, Holy Jesus" has a pulsating, throbbing ostinato beat played in the organ pedal. The organ introduction to the verses of "Savior of the Nations, Come" reflects the text (listen especially to how Ferguson translates the text "down to death . . . "). In stanza 3 of "The King of Love My Shepherd Is" the men reflect the "foolishness" of a straying flock of sheep. Angels flutter into the recording singing "Gloria in Excelsis Deo" before the congregation sings "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," and then flutter away after. And one could go on and on.

Add to the interpretation of text a flair for creativity and variety. Ferguson chooses to use a synthesizer hymn stanza in When in Our Music to reflect the text "a new dimension in the world of sound." The choirs also sing a Native American Alleluia, a processional song from Cameroon, and a stunning new anthem by John Bell entitled "We Will Lay Our Burden Down."

The recording ends with Ferguson's signature hymn festival closer, "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling," which thematically completes the CD and textually summarizes it.

These recordings are sure to inspire your approach to and interpretation of congregational hymnody. Organists and choir directors who ignore these recordings do so at their own risk. Ferguson pays respect to the great hymns of the church while bringing them to life in creative and meaningful ways. Since Ferguson chose to include in the jacket notes all composer and publishing information, these CDs are also a rich resource. Listeners leave the recording remembering not John Ferguson but the hymn texts, a mark of the consummate church musician.

It has been said that music has the power to save our souls. If this is true, then John Ferguson is one of the country's finest preachers.

Randall D. Engle (randyengle@aol.com) is pastor of North Hills Christian Reformed Church, Troy, Michigan.