In recent years Hyperion has carved out something of a niche
through recordings of the choral music of Baltic composers.
Many of these have been under the expert direction of Stephen
Layton. The latest such features the music of the Latvian composer,
I fancy that the name and music of Ešenvalds may be new
to many readers, as it was to me, and for information about
him and his compositions I’m indebted to the excellent booklet
note by his fellow-composer, Gabriel Jackson. Ešenvalds
first studied in Riga but subsequently he has studied with quite
a range of composers, including Richard Danielpour, Michael
Finnissy and Jonathan Harvey. Jackson describes him as “a pragmatic
composer – pragmatic in the sense that he is always the conscientious
professional, tailoring each new work to the requirements of
the occasion, the forces available, and the abilities (and priorities)
of the performers.” That may seem a pretty basic set of criteria
for a composer but I’m sure we can all think of many composers
– or works – that don’t meet them. Jackson also comments that
this pragmatism extends to the frequent setting of texts in
English with an eye to international audiences. All of the music
on this disc is wholly or in part set to English works, though
Long Road is a setting of a Latvian poem, which we hear
on this disc in an English version made specially for Polyphony
and Stephen Layton – and, in that version, dedicated to them.
Ešenvalds’ music is accessible and sounds to me to be well
written for voices, though needing an expert choir to do it
justice. Occasionally he requires his singers to make ‘special’
effects – I’m unconvinced that his touch is as sure on these
occasions, but other listeners may be more receptive.
The major work on the disc is Passion and Resurrection,
a piece that relates and comments on aspects of the story of
the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ. Written in four
parts, which play continuously, it’s a powerful and impressive
piece. There’s a prodigious role for a solo soprano. Carolyn
Sampson, the soloist here, is mainly known for her work in the
Baroque repertoire but many musicians who specialise in pre-Classical
music seem to have an affinity also for contemporary music and
I recall that Miss Sampson impressed me enormously in the première
of John Joubert’s An English Requiem at the 2010 Three
Choirs Festival (review).
She’s every bit as successful here in another very demanding
As a kind of unifying device Ešenvalds weave into his work
quotations from a piece, Parce mihi, by the sixteenth-century
Spanish composer, Cristóbal Morales. In fact, this music, sung
by a solo quartet, opens the piece and listeners may be reminded
of those recitals by The Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Gabarek,
though, mercifully, the intrusive saxophone is absent here.
The Morales music reappears at important junctures throughout
the piece. For the most part the music is meditative in nature.
Sometimes the choir sings the words of Christ and at other times
they report or comment on the events. The soloist is, in Gabriel
Jackson’s words, “a distinctly Marian and maternal presence”.
The accompaniment by a small string orchestra is most effective
and very well played here.
Passion and Resurrection makes a strong impression and
its appearance on disc - for the first time? - in such an expert
and committed performance is an important event.
The remaining pieces, all of which are for unaccompanied choir,
are also well worth getting to know. Evening is a simple,
thoughtful piece. Gabriel Jackson says that the piece “doesn’t
really go anywhere, it simply is, full of innocent wonderment
at the close of the day.” That’s a very good – and positive
– description. A Drop in the ocean commemorates the life
of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Much of the music is fairly simple
– though effective - in nature though I don’t much care for
the passage where the performers speak some of the text, rising
to shouting. However, the closing section, beginning at the
words, ‘Ah, Jesus, you are my God’, is hypnotically beautiful.
Long Road also contains some impressively lovely music.
Much of it is homophonic in nature and the music has what I’d
call a sophisticated simplicity. It makes for a lovely and touching
end to the recital.
I’m glad to have made the acquaintance of the music of Eriks
Ešenvalds through this disc and I hope to hear more of
his output. Though I haven’t seen any scores it sounds to me
as if the performances by Stephen Layton and Polyphony are pretty
much definitive – the singing is superb, as we’ve long come
to expect from this group – and the contribution of Carolyn
Sampson to Passion and Resurrection is magnificent. I’m
sure that the composer must be thrilled that his music has received
such advocacy. As ever with Hyperion, production values are
top-drawer. The recorded sound is very fine and the booklet,
not least the essay by Gabriel Jackson, is a model of its kind.