Eriks EŠENVALDS (b. 1977)
Passion and Resurrection (2005)* [27:37]
Evening (2006) [3:21]
Night Prayer (2006) [9:23]
A drop in the ocean (2006) [6:43]
Legend of the walled-in woman (2005) [10:23]
Long Road (2010) [6:40]
* Carolyn Sampson (soprano)
*Britten Sinfonia/Stephen Layton
rec. 10, 12-13 April 2010, All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London. DDD
Texts and English translations included
HYPERION CDA67796 [64:09]

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, Eriks Ešenvalds.

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 role.

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.

John Quinn

Hyperion introduce us to the music of another very interesting Baltic composer in definitive performances.