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Decca’s two-disc The Good Book: Stories from the Holy Bible in Words and Music contains 54 thematically arranged Scripture passages read by the actors David Harewood (Supergirl, Doctor Who) and Anton Lesser (Endeavour, Dickensian), the actress Imelda Staunton (Psychoville, Vera Drake), and the TV presenter Diane Louise Jordan (Songs of Praise, Blue Peter).
All four hail from England, and to listen to them is to understand what the critic John Simon meant when he wrote, “British English is like classical music; American English is like a marching band.”
It’s a distinction that the melodies of the 16 well-known hymns accompanying the readings bring out nicely. Played primarily on acoustic guitar or piano, they reinforce both the “classical musicality” of the oral performances and the themes of the Scripture passages themselves.
Sometimes the melodies do so directly. John Stainer’s “God So Loved the World,” for instance, plays during Lesser’s reading of John 3:1-16 and Staunton’s reading of John 19:25-42, while “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” plays during Harewood’s reading of 1 Corinthians 15:20-26.
But at other times—“Jesus, Lover of My Soul” playing throughout Harewood’s Genesis 15 (God’s covenant with Abraham) and Jordan’s Exodus 3:1-15 (Moses and the burning bush), and “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” playing throughout Lesser’s 1 Samuel 17:38-51 (David and Goliath) and 2 Samuel 7:8-16 (God’s promise to David via Nathan)—the connection between music and word presupposes a distinctly Christian hermeneutic.
So do the 17 headings under which the readings are grouped, which include “God’s Covenants,” “Baptism,” “Forgiveness and Salvation,” “Crucifixion and Resurrection,” “Miracles,” and “Pentecost.” Were copies of The Good Book to be tucked away in the drawers of motel- and hotel-room nightstands, the Gideons International might soon find itself out of business.
The sole drawback is that the translation of the Good Book that The Good Book employs is the gender-neutral New International Version, a choice that afflicts several passages, none more so than Matthew 4:19: Even Harewood’s dignified diction can’t keep “and I will send you out to fish for people” from sounding acutely contrived.
That objection aside, the overall attention to detail is impressive. In a “marching band” world, Jordan’s correct, two-syllable pronunciation of “blessed” in her reading of the Beatitudes is classical music to the ears.
The Kingdom Choir grabbed headlines last summer by performing “Stand by Me” at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Now, some 20 years after its founding, the London-based, Karen Gibson–led 31-voice soprano-alto-tenor ensemble has released its first album.
The tracks on Stand by Me: 15 Songs of Love, Hope and Inspiration (Sony) toggle from pop (John Legend’s “All of Me,” John Farnham’s “You’re the Voice,” Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love”) to gospelly pop (Beyoncé’s “Halo,” Dionne Warwick’s “I Say a Little Prayer,” the Isley Brothers’ “Harvest for the World”) to gospel with a capital G (a Christianized rewrite of Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day,” Stormzy’s “Blinded by Your Grace, Pt. 2,” “Amazing Grace,” the original “Chases”).
And although neither the vocals nor the instrumentation stray beyond the genteel, the more imaginative of the arrangements and the enthusiasm with which the Choir executes them could give “positive uplift” a good name.
That the album ends with “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” suggests that someone at Sony thought a tacked-on carol would improve sales in late December. But if ever a fourth-quarter release didn’t need any “seasoning,” Stand by Me is it. —A.O.