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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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Ēriks EŠENVALDS (b. 1977)
The Doors of Heaven
The First Tears (2015 [14:04]
Rivers of Light (2014) [6:33]
A Drop in the Ocean (2006) [7:49]
Passion and Resurrection (2005) [30:12]
Hannah Consenz (soprano)
Portland State University String Ensemble;
Portland State Chamber Choir / Ethan Sperry
rec. 2016, St Stephen’s Catholic Church, Portland, Oregon
Texts included
NAXOS 8.579008 [58:37]

Although this isn’t their first recording, I don’t believe I’ve heard the Portland State Chamber Choir before. From their website I've learned that this is a student choir, founded in 1975, whose members study at Portland State University (PSU). Currently 40 singers are listed on their website. Their conductor, Ethan Sperry, is the director of choral activities at PSU. I believe that Sperry and the choir have committed some individual works by Ēriks Ešenvalds to disc before but now they have devoted an entire CD to his music and have become, apparently, the first American choir so to do.

I’ve reviewed three all-Ešenvalds CDs over the last few years and I’ve come to admire his music very much. By chance, the first such disc to come my way was the CD by Stephen Layton and Polyphony that included what was, I think, the first recording of Passion and Resurrection (review). The work impressed me greatly then, as did the performance, so I’m delighted to have the opportunity to hear another version. Passion and Resurrection is scored for soprano solo, a semi-chorus, SATB choir and a small string orchestra. Cast in four sections, which play without a break, it’s not so much a conventional re-telling of the Passion story but, rather, a piece in which the libretto, knit together from a variety of sources by the composer, includes elements of Gospel narration but also comments and meditates on the Passion story. And, as the title suggests, Ešenvalds doesn’t conclude with the entombment of Christ but carries the story on to take in his Resurrection from the tomb.

The music, which is often powerful yet always accessible, is marvellous and very moving. As I’ve said, Ešenvalds compiled the libretto himself and I think he was just as successful in that task as he was in writing the music: the libretto is a perceptive and profound work of synthesis. (One point that Ethan Sperry doesn’t make in his excellent booklet note but which Gabriel Jackson includes in his notes for the Hyperion disc is that Ešenvalds has a very strong Christian faith: that comes out in this piece.) There’s a demanding role for a solo soprano in Passion and Resurrection. Stephen Layton had the luxury of a big-name soloist, Carolyn Sampson, whose performance is very special; indeed, revisiting the disc now I’ve come to esteem her performance all the more. I understand that 22-year-old Hannah Consenz was a member of the Portland State Chamber Choir at the time of this recording. She sings very well and with great commitment. If Hannah Consenz doesn’t quite match the achievement of Miss Sampson, hers is still a very fine performance.

The Portland choir does very well also – the four singers who form the crucial semi-chorus deserve special praise. The string orchestra supports them extremely well and Ethan Sperry evidences great understanding of the score. In particular, he seems to me to be pretty unerring in finding the balance between the more dramatic passages in the score and its many contemplative episodes. Pressed to a choice, I think the Layton recording remains the first choice – it helps that his performance was most atmospherically recorded in the sympathetic acoustic of All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London. However, this Portland performance is a significant achievement too. If you’re interested in contemporary choral music and haven’t yet heard Passion and Resurrection then I urge you to do so. This new recording does it justice.

A Drop in the Ocean also featured on the Layton disc of Passion and Resurrection. It was also sung on an Ondine disc that included Ešenvalds’ Passion according to St Luke (2014) (review). A Drop in the Ocean was written in memory of Mother Theresa of Calcutta and it includes not only some of her own words but also prayers that were especially close to her heart. The Portland recording starts so softly that the music seems only to come into earshot imperceptibly. As the piece opens we hear the Lord’s Prayer and the celebrated prayer of St Francis of Assisi (‘Lord, make me a channel of your peace’) sung simultaneously. One small point of detail is that on the Ondine recording each of these two prayers is sung by a soloist – an alto and a soprano respectively. Ethan Sperry has all his altos and sopranos singing at this point, as does Layton. The piece is most interesting. Partway through, the male voices sing fragments of the St Francis prayer loudly and almost aggressively as if to suggest the world trying to disrupt Mother Theresa’s devotions. The piece ends raptly with the soft singing of words by Mother Theresa which furnish the work with its title. The music fades into infinity, suggesting, I suspect, that for her followers the prayers of Mother Theresa just go on. All three performances of this work are very good: the Portland one need not fear its competition.

Rivers of Light is a piece for choir accompanied only by a jaw harp. It’s inspired by the Northern Lights and Ešenvalds interwove two strands into the piece. One is ancient Sámi Scandinavian folk melodies: these are sung in the original language by soprano and baritone soloist. The second element is a synthesis of words taken from the journals of a number of British explorers. These words are sung in English by the choir. The juxtaposition of the two elements works very well. I particularly admire the sense of wonder that Ešenvalds brings to much of the music for choir. I’ve also encountered the piece on another disc conducted by Stephen Layton, this time conducting his Trinity College, Cambridge choir (review). The Layton recording is very fine but I think two things give this new Portland version an edge. One is that Layton paces the music just a little bit faster and I prefer Ethan Sperry’s greater sense of space. The other factor is that though the Trinity Choir is excellently recorded there’s rather more distance on the Naxos sound and I find this imparts a greater atmosphere and sense of awe to the Portland performance.

The First Tears is a remarkable piece. Ešenvalds has taken, and possibly adapted, an ancient Inuit legend that relates how grief was first brought into the world. The choir is joined by percussion, a jaw harp and, in this recording, by a North American flute. The score contains wonderfully imaginative choral textures which the instruments enhance. However, Ešenvalds goes far beyond the provision of intriguing and inventive textures: he uses this magical sound world to tell the story compellingly. Much of the writing is very beautiful but there’s a great deal more urgency as the tragic climax of the story is reached. The ending is gently melancholic and very beautiful; here the flute is a wonderful addition to the scoring. Sperry and his forces give a marvellous performance. This work is also on the programme of the Ondine disc to which I referred earlier (review). That performance is also very good but there’s one important difference. Instead of the North American flute a recorder is used in the concluding episode. The recorder’s sound is more piercing and I much prefer the gentler sound of the flute. In passing, I wonder if the usual scoring specifies a recorder and if it was Ethan Sperry’s idea to use the North American flute on this occasion. If that’s the case the idea works very well.

This is a super disc. All the music is compelling and the work of a composer who really knows how to exploit the sound of a choir to the full and in most imaginative but not outlandish ways. All the pieces that Ethan Sperry has chosen have been recorded already by distinguished choirs. However, this fine Portland choir competes most effectively with its rivals. The singing throughout is excellent and the various members of the choir who are called into the spotlight to sing solos all acquit themselves very well. Anyone wanting to explore the extraordinary music of Ēriks Ešenvalds could start here with confidence. The performers been very well recorded and the release is accompanied by very good documentation. In all respects, therefore, this disc is a conspicuous success.

This is my first encounter with the Portland State Chamber Choir; I hope it won’t be my last.

John Quinn

 




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