Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Strikingly original and often quite beautiful choral works by Latvian composer, Ēriks Ešenvalds on a new disc from Ondine featuring Sinfonietta Rīga, the Latvian Radio Choir and soloists conducted by Sigvards Kļava

Latvian composer, Ēriks Ešenvalds (b. 1977) www.eriksesenvalds.com was born in Riga in 1977 and studied at the Latvian Baptist Theological Seminary before obtaining his Masters degree in composition from the Latvian Academy of Music under the tutelage of Selga Mence. From 2002-2011 he was a member of the State Choir Latvija. In 2011 he was awarded the two-year position of Fellow Commoner in Creative Arts at Trinity College, Cambridge University, UK.

Ēriks Ešenvalds has won multiple awards for his work, including the Latvian Great Music Prize (2005 & 2007). The International Rostrum of Composers awarded him first prize in 2006 for The Legend of the Walled-in Woman, he was made a laureate of the Copyright Award in 2006 and was The Year's New-Composer Discovery of the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2010, the same year he was nominated for the British Composer Award. In 2011 the Kamēr Youth Choir's CD O Salutaris featuring choral music exclusively by Ēriks Ešenvalds won the Latvian Music Records Award as the best academic music album of the year. In 2014 the State Choir Latvija's CD At the Foot of the Sky featuring choral music exclusively by Ēriks Ešenvalds won the Latvian Music Records Award.

Ēriks Ešenvalds’ compositions have been premiered by ensembles including the Britten Sinfonia, the Choir of Trinity College Cambridge, the Holst Singers and Imogen Heap, Polyphony, the Choir of Merton College Oxford, the Latvian Radio Choir, the State Choir Latvija, the Kamēr Youth Choir, Sinfonietta Rīga, the Bavarian Radio Choir, the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, the Liepaja Symphony Orchestra, the Netherlands National Children's Choir, the Swedish Art Vocal Ensemble, Salt Lake Vocal Artists, Temple University Philadelphia, The Crossing, Portland State University Chamber Choir, the Choir of the West at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, and The University of Louisville Cardinal Singers, and The University of Mississippi Concert Singers. In 2007 the Latvian National Opera staged his first opera Joseph is a Fruitful Bough.

Ondine www.ondine.net have just released a recording of Ešenvalds’ St Luke Passion coupled with three other choral works, A Drop in the Ocean, The First Tears and Litany of the Heavens with Sinfonietta Rīga www.sinfoniettariga.lv , the Latvian Radio Choir www.radiokoris.lv/lv/koris  and soloists conducted by Sigvards Kļava www.radiokoris.lv/lv/koris/sigvards-klava

ODE 1247-2

Having already written Passion and Resurrection, an oratorio for soprano, mixed choir and string orchestra, in 2005, it was the conductor on this recording, Sigvards Kļava, that suggested to Ēriks Ešenvalds’ that he should write the Passion according to St Luke (2014).

On this recording of the Passion Sigvards Kļava, the Latvian Radio Choir and Sinfonietta Riga are joined by soloists Ieva Parša (mezzo-soprano), Jānis Kurševs (tenor) and Daumants Kalniņš (baritone). 

A roll of timpani dramatically takes us into Espressivo with an outburst of ‘Crucify Him, They All cried’ from the chorus and orchestra before tenor, Jānis Kurševs calls ‘Why…’ all the while Ešenvalds maintains a terrific sense of drama and impending catastrophe. Kurševs brings a fine sense of anguish with the chorus reaching a plateau before falling away for a wonderful woodwind passage we run into Misterioso a quiet, rather static section where mezzo Ieva Parša introduces the words ‘Behold the timber of the cross is a carpenter's work’ a beautifully flowing form of recitative underlaid by the choir with the soloist keeping a beautifully woven line with lovely little decorations.

We are taken straight into a gently rhythmic third section, also titled Espressivo where baritone Daumants Kalniņš sings ‘And there followed him a great company of people’ with the choir chanting a staccato line behind, slowly but inexorably rising in drama to a violent outburst with timpani.

The Adagio opens with an intensely dramatic hush as the mezzo brings a Jewish flavour to ‘Shema Yisrael’ creating the effect of an intense lament. The orchestra hold a wonderfully hushed drama as soloist and orchestra weave the most wonderfully evocative ideas. Later the choir join to raise the temperature as they rise in drama, vocalising with the mezzo and rising to a peak.

Another section marked Espressivo arrives with percussion taps as though we can hear nails being hit. Tenor, Jānis Kurševs enters with a desperate plea ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’ The mezzo joins for the recitative before the female voices of the choir bring ‘If thou be Christ, save thyself and us’ in an ethereal manner over high static strings. This alternates with the recitative for mezzo in a strikingly wonderful section. ‘Verily I say unto thee’ is sung by the tenor who rises over the choir and orchestra dramatically before settling gently into ‘Today thou shalt be with me in paradise …’ a particularly wonderful moment with Jewish inflections from the choir that take over.

Part VI is marked  = 56 with mezzo and baritone weaving a lovely section on ‘ And they parted his raiment, and cast lots.’ Again the music is full of Jewish inflections, rising in drama for the baritone as they argue over the raiments in a wonderfully characterised section, finding a rather maniacal feel. They build over the choir and orchestra to a peak of intensity before soloist walks away with a final shout.

Percussion provide a jumble of sounds evoking bustle and chaos for Part VII  = 69 before the mezzo and baritone enter dramatically with ‘And the soldiers mocked him, offering him vinegar’ still with percussion adding a disturbing background. The bustle falls away for the mezzo to sing ‘But as they sailed, he fell asleep…’ over a beautifully flowing choral layer with a repeated harp motif as accompaniment. The music builds suddenly for ‘Master we perish…’ a passage of great flowing breadth for chorus and orchestra, dropping suddenly for the baritone to sing ‘Then he arose and rebuked the wind and the raging water…’

The final section, Cantabile rises gently on hushed strings and harp motif where the choir distantly sing  ‘Does that lamp still burn in my Father's house’ out of which the tenor rises to continue, wonderfully controlled as the music surges forward and recedes, Jānis Kurševs showing his strong voice. There is a sudden timpani stroke followed by a hush before mezzo, Ieva Parša enters over static choir and orchestra with ‘Can you hear the One who is calling…’ , a quite lovely moment leaving the mezzo alone as she reaches ‘the One who is love?’

This is a strikingly original and exceptionally beautiful Passion quite wonderfully performed.

A Drop in the Ocean (2006) was commissioned by the Rīga Youth Choir Kamēr and first performed by them at the IV World Choir Games (Xiamen, China in 2006.

For mixed choir the work opens with the sounds of wind before alto, Līga Paegle joins to chant the Pater Noster. Soprano, Ieva Ezeriete joins to bring the Prayer of St Francis, ‘Lord, make be a channel of your peace.’ The choir join to bring a drone like layer of hushed murmurings of the words ‘sadness, darkness, doubt, injury, error, discord, despair, hatred’  as soloists continue the Pater Noster and Prayer of St Francis creating a terrific feeling of mystery. Later the chorus rise out of the hushed murmurings to arrive at a climax with ‘I may bring light’ soaring forward with some fine dissonances.  There is some quite special choral writing here, brilliantly sung by the Latvian Radio Choir. The soloists are heard through the choir before the soprano leads with a song of the Sisters of the Calcutta Mission of Mother Teresa ‘Jesus, You are my God…’ There are some beautifully shaped phrases for soprano and choir before leading gently to an exquisitely controlled, hushed coda where the opening sounds can be heard.

The First Tears (2014) for mixed choir, drum, campanelli, jaw harps and recorder is based on an Inuit folk tale. The Latvian Radio Choir opens alone with a repeated ‘…it was Raven…’ followed by a repeated ‘…who created…’ then ‘…the world…’ slowly expanding as they repeat the text. Individual voices continue with ‘One day, Raven was out on the water in his kayak …’ bringing richer choral sounds before rising in power in a lovely swirl of sound at the words ‘It wasn’t an island at all, but an enormous whale.’ There are female voices over a sustained male voice layer in ‘Raven followed the light and went further inside the whale...’ again increasing in power and tempo. A recorder enters bringing a folk style melody with lovely little inflections over a choral backdrop. The chorus sound out over jaw harps in ‘Raven followed the light …’ weaving alternative male and female voices through some wonderful choral passages. Later there is a fine moment when the choir hum the melody over delicate, hushed percussion sounds. The music rises in drama to a fine dissonance that drops at the words ‘The girl then stopped dancing…’ through some remarkable fine choral writing to a peak on the words ‘The Raven flew higher and higher…’ before dropping quiet. The recorder returns to lead through a lovely passage for choir and delicate percussion, rising to more moments of drama before jaw harps add their strange sounds, as the recorder glides over a hushed chorus, creating a most unusual, quite beautifully hushed coda.

This is an atmospheric and quite wonderful evocation of the tale.

Litany of the Heavens (2011) is for mixed choir, water tuned glasses, chamber orchestra and tape. A characterful solo male voice opens, a recording of an old Kyrie eleison chant made at a Catholic church in Latvia. The choir rise over the chant creating a fine effect, gently pointed up by harp. The music moves ahead with the most lovely choral sonorities and beautifully controlled dynamics. There are some gorgeous choral and orchestral harmonies and sonorities as the music slowly moves forward with a lovely ebb and flow. The chant is heard again before chorus rise up to achieve a tremendous climax for choir and orchestra that soon finds a lovely glow. Later there is a quiet, gentle passage with exquisitely delicate ringing sounds over a lovely orchestral backdrop before moving through further wonderful climaxes to a most distinctive orchestral passage as the solo taped voice is heard again, chanting before fading into the coda.

This is a most remarkable and beautiful work.

This is a composer I want to hear more of. The works on this disc are strikingly original and often quite beautiful. The performances are excellent as are the recordings from St. John’s Church (Sv. Jana baznica), Riga, Latvia. 

There are informative booklet notes together with full texts and, where necessary, English translations.

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