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Ēriks EŠENVALDS (b. 1977)
Passion according to St Luke (2014) [30:36]
A Drop in the Ocean (2006) [8:22]
The First Tears (2014) [14:53]
Litany of the Heavens (2011) [13:43]
Ieva Parša (mezzo); Jānis Kurševs (tenor); Daumants Kalniņš (baritone);
Latvian Radio Choir; Sinfonietta Riga/Sigvards Kļava
rec. 5-7 May 2015. St John’s Church, Riga, Latvia
Texts and English translation (Litany of the Heavens) included
ONDINE ODE 1247-2 [68:09]

Ēriks Ešenvalds’ Passion according to St Luke is a successor to his Passion and Resurrection (2005), a recording of which I reviewed back in 2011. That was my first encounter with the work of this Latvian composer but since then I’ve heard quite a number of his choral pieces and I’ve been consistently impressed.

The Passion according to St Luke is scored for three vocal soloists, choir and orchestra. It’s in eight sections, though these play without a break. The work is sung in English. In Passion and Resurrection Ešenvalds set passages of text from more than one of the Passion Gospels; here, as the title indicates, he confines himself to St Luke’s narrative but, as in the earlier work, he also brings in other relevant portions of text.

The work begins in medias res, as it were, at the moment that Pilate hands Jesus over to the Jews for crucifixion. Thus the highly dramatic opening has the choir crying ‘Crucify him’ with a turbulent orchestral accompaniment. The second section is a deeply-felt solo for mezzo which highlights the use of wood: in the cross, of course, and also as the material with which Jesus, as the son of a carpenter, worked earlier in his life. Another even more expressive solo for the mezzo occurs in the fourth section, a soft, intense setting of the Hebrew Shema Yisrael prayer, which rises to an impassioned climax at the end.

At the start of the fifth section the tenor has an anguished solo, ‘Father, forgive them’. As he sings, we hear hammering noises in the orchestra, which are clearly the sounds of nails being driven in. However, soon the mezzo takes over the crucifixion narrative and the music becomes softer, perhaps more accepting. As the episode of the repentant thief is related the music achieves a warm, reassuring climax at ‘Today thou shalt be with me in paradise’.

The sixth section deals with the division of Christ’s clothing among the soldiers. Here Ešenvalds includes a passage from The Prodigal Son by James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) in which the Prodigal Son asks his father for his share of the inheritance. Here the baritone soloist adopts what I take to be a deliberately harsh tone; in fact he sounds rather like a singer in musical theatre but that fits the music and the sentiments of the text very well. The seventh section concerns the death of Christ, the narration of which is shared by the soloists and is suitably dramatic. This segues seamlessly into the episode much earlier in St Luke’s Gospel where Christ stilled a storm on the Sea of Tiberias and, in so doing, calmed also the fears of his disciples. Given what is being described here I’m mildly surprised at how calm much of the music – for mezzo and chorus – is, though a huge climax is attained at ‘Master, we perish’. The final section is a setting of lines by Christina Rossetti. Initially the two male soloists and the chorus are involved and the music is radiant. Towards the end, however, the mezzo takes over at ‘Can you hear the One who is calling you…’ and now the music becomes wonderfully reposeful, gradually dying away to nothing.

Passion according to St Luke is a remarkable composition. It’s concise but that doesn’t stop it being dramatic – at times graphic – and eloquent. I found it very moving. The performance is superb. Among a trio of fine soloists Ieva Parša is outstanding and the choir and orchestra are magnificent.

A Drop in the Ocean combines three texts: the Lord’s Prayer (in Latin), the celebrated prayer of St Francis of Assisi (‘Lord, make me a channel of your peace’) and some prayers by Mother Teresa of Calcutta. St Francis’ prayer is set as a gorgeous, high-lying and very free-sounding soprano solo. Later, when we reach the words of Mother Teresa the music is ecstatic and harmonically rich. This is a lovely work.

The unlikely inspiration for The First Tears is an Inuit fairy tale. This is an intriguing piece scored for choir, drum, campanelli, jaw harps and whistles. It’s a very imaginative and interesting work and some of the choral writing is beguiling. Here is a prime example of Ēriks Ešenvalds’ amazingly keen ear for fascinating musical textures.

That characteristic is very much on display also in Litany of the Heavens. Here the composer deploys a device which he’s used most effectively in some other compositions: water-tuned glasses, played by members of the choir, I assume. There’s also a part for a prepared tape. This is a recording, made by the conductor, Sigvards Kļava of an old man singing an old ‘Kyrie eleison’ chant in a little rural Latvian Catholic church. The man’s singing is heard three times during the piece. The text is a highly evocative poem by the Latvian poet Fricis Bārda and Ešenvalds sets it marvellously. His slow-moving music complements and enhances the words really well. It’s a highly atmospheric and most effective piece.

All the music on this disc is very well worth hearing. It confirms Ēriks Ešenvalds as a leading light in contemporary choral music. His compositions are tremendously imaginative and effective; I found my attention gripped by all the pieces on this disc. Though I’ve not seen any scores I can’t imagine that the music is anything other than hugely demanding to perform, especially to the standard achieved here. The Latvian Radio Choir is a professional body and, my goodness, it shows. The singing throughout is exemplary, as is the playing of Sinfonietta Riga. Sigvards Kļava and the Ondine engineers deserve our admiration and our thanks for presenting this music with such clarity and yet with the benefit of a pleasing acoustic in which the amount of resonance is just right.

The notes by Anastasia Belina-Johnson explain the music in an ideal fashion.

This is a highly desirable disc. I hope that Ondine will record more music by this highly original and inventive composer. Might I put in a plea for a recording of Lakes Awake at Dawn, jointly commissioned by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Symphony Orchestra to mark the transition of the conductor Andris Nelsons from the Music Directorship in Birmingham to the equivalent post in Boston (review)?

John Quinn



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