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Ēriks EŠENVALDS (b. 1977)
O salutaris Hostia (2009 [3:36]
The Heavens’ Flock (2014) [4:29]
Translation (2016) [4:44]
My Thoughts (Мысли мои) (2019) [9:30]
Vineta (2009) [12:02]
Legend of the Walled-In Woman (2005) [11;45]
In Paradisum (2012) [12;52]
Charles Noble (viola); Marilyn de Oliveira (cello); David Walters (singing handbells); Joel Bluestone & Florian Conzetti (percussion)
Portland State Chamber Choir/Ethan Sperry
rec. January & June, 2019, St Mary’s Catholic Church, Mt. Angel, USA
Texts included
NAXOS 8.574124 [59:20]

In 2017 I gave a warm welcome to a CD of music by Ēriks Ešenvalds performed by the Portland State Chamber Choir conducted by Ethan Sperry. I’m delighted, therefore, that they’ve issued a follow-up disc, especially as the programme includes some works that I don’t recall hearing previously. Ethan Sperry writes in a comprehensive booklet essay that the album “features seven sections on the idea of ‘translation’ or the transformations that occur within us when we encounter the power of nature,… legends,…or the divine.”

The album gets off to the most auspicious start possible, both in terms of music and performance, with O salutaris Hostia. I regard this short work as one of the composer’s loveliest creations; the piece speaks to the heart. The scoring glows, with two soprano soloists carolling above the sound of the rest of the choir. Here, the soloists are Kate Ledington and Maeve Stier and they make a truly beautiful sound; their voices sound like the aural equivalent of seeing birds in flight.

The programme is bookended with beautifully imagined pieces, superbly performed. Right at the end we hear In Paradisum. This piece, which uses the words of the antiphon which is sung or said as a body is taken from church at the end of a Catholic funeral mass, was written in memory of the composer’s grandmother. It’s scored for choir and two solo string instruments: viola and cello. The unusual feature of this piece is that it’s a choral work in which the choir cedes priority to the stringed instruments; Ethan Sperry comments that it is “almost a concerto for viola and cello with the choir serving as the orchestra”. The choir’s music is homophonic and for much of the time they sing wordlessly. Only between 7:21 and 9:57 does the choir’s singing of the text take centre stage. The piece is hypnotic and elegiac and this very sensitive performance of it makes a wonderful conclusion to the programme.

Two pieces, heard in succession, set words by Paulann Petersen (b 1942) who between 2010 and 2014 was Oregon’s Poet Laureate. The Heavens’ Flock was commissioned by the Portland State Chamber Choir and it was through this piece that Ešenvalds and Petersen first collaborated. It’s a gorgeous piece in which the choir is divided into between six and eight parts. The poem’s narrator, Ethan Sperry tells us, “wanders as a lowly shepherd lost on earth while the stars dwell separately above as Heavens’ flock.” Such a poetic scenario is meat and drink to Ešenvalds with his proven ability, experienced in a piece such as Stars (2012), to conjure up musical vistas of vast skies and the stars in them. I presume that it was as a result of this collaboration that Ešenvalds asked Petersen to supply the text for a commission from he American vocal ensemble, The Crossing; the outcome was Translation. In this piece Petersen’s text is entrusted to an SATB quartet of voices while the choir sings wordlessly behind them. It’s a very pleasing feature of Ešenvalds’ choral music that he quite often enhances the texture through the imaginative addition of percussion instruments. These are invariably used sparingly and subtly to add atmosphere. In this case he deploys singing handbells, played like Tibetan singing bowls; near the end of the piece these contribute a beautiful shimmering sound.

My Thoughts sets a text by Saint Silouan the Athonite (1886-1938). This piece begins with the three lower voices of the choir, all divided into multiple parts, singing mysterious music that is so slow moving as to be almost static. It’s only at 3:28 that the sopranos begin to sing, their voices lightening what has been a mahogany dark texture. The music that follows features choral textures that are rich even by the standards of this composer; hereabouts I especially admired the firm foundation that the Portland choir’s basses provide. Ešenvalds builds the piece to a powerful climax after which there’s an extended silence before, at 8:03, the sopranos lead their colleagues in singing the last stanza to very gentle music which includes some intriguing harmonies.

Vineta was commissioned by the Bavarian Radio Chorus and it was they who chose the text which is by Wilhelm Müller, the poet of Winterreise. The poem is about the legendary city of Vineta which was consumed by the Baltic Sea on account of the excesses of its citizens. According to the legend, the church bells of Vineta can still be heard from below the surface of the water, luring sailors to their deaths. Unsurprisingly, but very effectively, Ešenvalds includes parts for a number of percussion instruments: vibraphones, glockenspiel, chimes, bass drum and suspended cymbal. The piece, which is sung in German, sets the poem in a compelling fashion and whenever percussion instruments are deployed their use is highly imaginative. In this work Ešenvalds shows his mastery of textures and innovative sounds used entirely in the service of the music and not for their own ends. It’s a super piece and the performance does it full justice. I just had one small disappointment. The notes tell us that at the very end the score includes “a shimmer of suspended cymbal and a dozen triangles played gently with knitting needles”. I listened very carefully several times through headphones but though I could hear the cymbal very clearly, I couldn’t detect the triangles, which I presume are intended to be played by members of the choir. Maybe the sound of those instruments struck not with the customary metal beater was just too subtle.

Legend of the Walled-In Woman concerns a traditional Albanian legend about three brothers who try to build a fortress. It always falls down overnight until their mother has a dream that success will only be achieved if the wife of one of the brothers is immured alive in the fortress during its construction. The brothers agree that whichever of their wives brings them food the next day will be the sacrificial victim but two brothers tip their wives off. The youngest brother kept to their agreement and so it’s his wife who suffers the very unpleasant fate, which she accepts with grace. Ešenvalds painstakingly transcribed from an old recording the traditional Albanian folksong which tells this sorry tale. He then elaborated it most imaginatively, using solo voices and the full choir. Towards the end (from 7:29) the piece moves into a funeral march for the dead woman set for choir with two soprano soloists, representing her sisters-in-law. For this section Ešenvalds uses lines from the poem ‘My Land’ by the Albanian author, Martin Camaj (1925-1992). It’s a most interesting piece and I find it fascinating that Ešenvalds should have taken such an unlikely subject and made it into an eloquent work of art.

I came to this CD as a strong admirer of the music of Ēriks Ešenvalds but had I not done so then I feel sure this disc would have converted me. Ešenvalds is one of the most interesting and innovative composers of choral music currently before the public. Even his shortest works are ambitious in imagination and as a singer himself – he was for nine years a member of State Choir Latvija – he has great knowledge of what will work well for a choir. This particular programme offers an excellent cross section of his choral music.

Ešenvalds is extremely well served by the Portland State Chamber Choir. Given that this is now their second CD of his music and they have commissioned music from him it’s obvious that their conductor, Ethan Sperry is an admirer. That enthusiasm comes over in his excellent booklet essay and, crucially, in the way he gets his choir to perform the music. They make a very fine sound indeed and the singing is highly disciplined and attentive to detail. In every respect this new disc matches the very high standards which they set on their previous Ešenvalds disc. They have been recorded warmly and clearly by the engineers.

Admirers of the music of this gifted Latvian composer should not hesitate to acquire this outstanding disc.

John Quinn

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