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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

How Great Thou Were

I confess finding it a bit odd charging through the Grand Central IRT station and catching strains of "How Great Thou Art" played, none too well, by a Peruvian panpipes band (which are ubiquitous in the New York City Subways). Even odder for me, though, was its use as the closing hymn this past Sunday at the Francis Cabrini Shrine in Northern Manhattan, where I sometimes attend mass when feeling less ill-disposed than usual toward contemporary Catholic liturgy, music and architecture (a temporary condition, to be sure) and also don't feel like making the trip downtown.

You may find it surprising but I believe some good things did come out of the Vatican II reforms, one of them being the increased inclusion of music in the mass by protestant divines like Bach, Buxtehude, Sch├╝tz and Praetorious. Still, it jars to hear an overtly protestant hymn like "How Great Thou Art" in such a Catholic setting as the Cabrini Shrine but at least the congregants there sang it with a certain amount of gusto, which is more than they do with most hymns there, in spite (or more likely, because) of the woman-in-the-front-with-a-microphone problem, found in so many Catholic churches.

As far as I'm concerned, though, there was but one performer of "How Great Thou Art" and his performances surpassed all others by a mile: I write, of course, of the King--Elvis, that is. I prefer his studio recording to the live ones because of its better sound and instrumentation (listen to those kettledrums while he sings "I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder!"). Also, the artist's voice was is in far better repair (as was the artist) than in the later live recordings of the hymn. Outstanding in all versions, though, is Elvis' interpretation, the emotiveness of which makes Mario Lanza's performances of Neapolitan songs seem like paradigms of restraint. Wretched excess never comes better than this.

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