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Ēriks EŠENVALDS (b. 1977)
From the dim and distant past - Folk songs and legends
State Choir Latvija/Māris Sirmais
rec. 2017, St John’s Lutheran Church, Riga
Texts & English translations included
STATE CHOIR LATVIJA (no catalogue number) [60:24]

Latvia is lucky enough to have two formidable professional choirs: The Latvian Radio Choir and State Choir Latvija. It is the latter ensemble that concerns us here. I’ve encountered them on a couple of previous discs: Mariss Jansons’ recording of Mahler’s Eighth on which they combined with other choirs (review) and, singing by themselves, on a superb disc of music by Gabriel Jackson (review).
The present disc has been issued on the choir’s own label to mark the ensemble’s 75th anniversary – it was founded in 1942. It’s fitting on two counts that they should have chosen to celebrate this anniversary by recording a programme of music by Ēriks Ešenvalds: in the first place he is one of Latvia’s most celebrated living composers and secondly, he was a member of the choir for nine years; indeed, he was listed among the singers who made the aforementioned Gabriel Jackson disc. Actually, this is the choir’s second all-Ešenvalds release. They’ve previously recorded, again on their own label, a programme entitled At the Foot of the Sky. I’ve not heard that disc though I’m determined to rectify that omission. They’ve also recorded his important Passion and Resurrection, coupled with the Te Deum by Rihards Dubra.

This particular programme explores two themes. One is the extent to which Ešenvalds is captivated by folk melodies and by legends. The other is his strong preoccupation with aspects of nature.

I’ve heard previously some of the pieces here recorded but others were new to me. I don’t recall hearing the arrangements of My Luve is Like a Red, Red Rose or O Danny Boy before. Both are pleasant enough and the addition of a tin whistle at the beginning and end of the former is a nice touch. Both of these settings feature the same pair of soloists – a soprano and a baritone. Neither is listed as a member of the choir and both are recorded quite closely in a rather pop-style balance – the baritone is a bit of a crooner, too. It has to be said that O Danny Boy isn’t advantageously placed in the running order: it’s a big anti-climax after the very inventive The First Tears.

Also new to me were Ancient Prairie and Rasa. The former comes from a larger work, Whispers on the Prairie Wind, a work written for the Utah Symphony and various choirs from Utah. I’ve not heard the complete work but on the evidence of this excerpt I’m keen to do so. Ancient Prairie is a setting of a short poem, in English translation, by the Chinese poet Bai Juyi (772-846). The choir sings the poem in slow, calm and richly harmonised homophonic music. After they’ve sung the poem a pure and ethereal solo violin (Ilze Zariŋa) plays the melody, adding ornamentation that brings out the folk-like nature of the tune. Violin and singers then combine to bring the piece to a close. Rasa is a setting for a cappella choir of a poem written in 1995 by Rasa Maija Armale, a pupil at the same school, Liepāja State Gymnasium, that Ešenvalds himself had previously attended. In the poem Rasa explores and reflects upon her given name. As with Ancient Prairie the music, though sophisticated, has a simplicity of utterance that communicates very directly – to the heart, in fact.

Ainava ar ganiem is quite remarkable. The composer has assembled his own text from various Latvian folk songs and woven them into a celebration of and reflection on the often-rugged life of herdsmen. The score includes important parts for five vocal soloists, some of whom are drawn from the choir. There’s also telling but sparing use of percussion. The vocal soloists often use a deliberately edgy, rustic timbre, which is most effective. For much of the time the choir is used in a subsidiary role to support the soloists, often wordlessly. The sound of the music is fascinating and highly original: the composer has synthesised the sophistication of modern-day composition with the primitive herdsmen’s’ calls in a most imaginative way. Later in the programme Aizej, lietiŋ also uses Latvian folk instruments including an accordion and a kokles, a traditional Latvian stringed instrument. This is another imaginative and successful fusion of traditional Latvian folk music and modern choral writing.

Ešenvalds’ strong identification with nature finds expression in two pieces linked to the Northern Lights. In both Rivers of Light and Northern Lights he combines traditional songs – sung by soloists – with texts written about the Northern Lights by various travellers and explorers. I’ve heard both pieces before and here, once again, I’m impressed by them – all the more so since the performances are so fine. I’ve also heard before the longest piece on the programme, The First Tears, most recently in a very fine recording by the Portland State Chamber Choir from the USA (review). The piece sets a text, in English, which is Ešenvalds’ own re-telling of an ancient Inuit legend. I think this is a marvellous piece; the composer makes highly original use of many layers of choral textures for narrative and dramatic effect. The legend is re-told for the twenty-first century in a compelling fashion. The performance by State Choir Latvija is fabulous and made me appreciate even more this highly original composition.

The singing of State Choir Latvija is mightily impressive throughout this disc. Clearly, they’ve been superbly trained by Māris Sirmais, their Artistic Director and conductor since 1997. Not only is Sirmais’ great ability as a choral trainer evident at every turn, so too is his empathy with the music. Ēriks Ešenvalds is, I believe, one of the most exciting and interesting choral composers of our time and his music is superbly served here. This is a terrific way for the choir to mark 75 years of singing.
The recorded sound is excellent. The musical textures are reported with clarity, which is crucial, but there’s also a pleasing natural ambience around the performers. There are valuable notes by Christopher Walsh Sinka who also contributes overtone chanting to the performance of The First Tears.

John Quinn

Disc contents
My Luve is Like a Red, Red Rose (2016) [4:05]
Ainava ar ganiem (Landscape with Herdsmen) (2014) [7:22]
There will Come Soft Rains (2017) [3:51]
Rivers of Light (2014) [5:54]
Northern Lights (2013) [5:45]
The First Tears (2015) [13:31]
O Danny Boy (2014) [3:35]
Aizej, lietiŋ (Go Away, Rain) (2005) [6:20]
Ancient Prairie (2015) [5:04]
Rasa (Dew) (2017) [4:57]



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