EŠENVALDS The Doors of Heaven
One might have thought that trying to beat the Latvians at their own game was an impossible task, but this outstanding disc proves that composers such as Ešenvalds speak very clearly across cultures. I write these prefatory words because this disc has a competitor in the Latvian Radio Choir’s recording (Ondine, 8/16), which includes two of the same pieces, The First Tears and A Drop in the Ocean, but I follow them immediately by saying that the serious Latvian choral enthusiast will need to own both. They complement each other in their different approaches, and prove that Ešenvalds’s music is not only more than able to withstand differing interpretations but positively benefits from them. In addition, Passion and Resurrection and A Drop in the Ocean appear on an outstanding release by Polyphony under Stephen Layton (Hyperion, 5/11).
The Portland choir begin with the ritualistic, colourful The First Tears (2015). Its text comes from an Inuit folk legend, dealing with what happens immediately after the creation of the world (in this case by a raven). The choir is used as a vast palette of colours and you can really hear the singers enjoying their separate contributions to this. In fact, there is a greater depth of colour than on the Latvian recording, which strikes me as being more uniform by comparison, and the percussion-playing is somewhat more daring too. Rivers of Light (2014), which does not appear on the Latvians’ anthology, is an evocation of the Northern Lights from two different perspectives – those of the Sami people and of British explorers experiencing them for the first time. The texts are therefore drawn from Sami folk tradition and descriptions of the Lights found in explorers’ journals, a juxtaposition exploited in the combination of two different musical styles, the Sami texts being intoned by soloists. As conductor Ethan Sperry notes, ‘Ešenvalds writes his most expansive and beautiful chords in an attempt to capture their vision of heaven through the medium of music’. I can think of no better description of this work, but it is important to note that it is the stylistic juxtaposition that makes it more than merely a fluffy evocation of tranquil beauty: the composer has struck that balance perfectly.
A Drop in the Ocean (2006), written in memory of Mother Theresa of Calcutta, also mixes different languages and texts, but I find it less convincing than Rivers of Light; perhaps it simply tries too hard. Not that this stops the Portland State Chamber Choir from turning in a superb performance, as they do also for the earliest work on the disc, the cantata Passion and Resurrection (2005). This work draws on both Latin and Byzantine texts, and actually begins with a quotation of Morales’s penitential Parce mihi. Hannah Cosenz is very impressive indeed as the soprano soloist (not a small compliment given that the soloist for Hyperion’s recording is Carolyn Sampson), with a full, rich but incisive tone. I should point out that the identification of the ‘sinful woman’, whose words form the first soprano aria, with Mary Magdalene is entirely false, though it is frequently made – this is the Byzantine hymn known as the Troparion of Kassiani, from Matins of Holy Wednesday. The other Byzantine texts are similarly not properly identified in the booklet, unlike the Roman rite and biblical texts.
This is a superb disc, containing impassioned performances, beautifully recorded, and I very much hope that it will bring the work of the PSCC and Ethan Sperry before the wide international audience it deserves.