‘Rarely before have I sat in a concert hall and heard a new work that sounded so fresh yet so familiar … Ešenvalds Passion and Resurrection is surely set to become a classic, a position Hyperion’s forthcoming CD release of the work should consolidate’ (On an Overgrown Path).
The live performance last year of this major and substantial work by the young Latvian composer Ešenvalds thrilled critics and audiences alike. As a new liturgical work that looks set to enter the repertoire it is comparable to Arvo Pärt’s Passio.
Eschewing the single narrative perspective that characterizes the great Passion settings of the past, the composer has assembled an interlocking mosaic of texts from the gospels, from Byzantine and Roman liturgies, and from the Old Testament.
Stephen Layton’s commitment to new Baltic music is well-known and he has a deep understanding of the musical language of the area – reflected by performances of great integrity and passion. This recording is particularly splendid, featuring not only the matchless Polyphony and Britten Sinfonia but also Carolyn Sampson, acclaimed for her performances of early music on Hyperion but heard here to dazzling effect, crowning the performance with her extraordinary singing.
Other recommended albums
Eriks Ešenvalds is a pragmatic composer—pragmatic in the sense that he is always the conscientious professional, tailoring each new work to the requirements of the occasion, the forces available, and the abilities (and priorities) of the performers; pragmatic, too, is his tendency to set English texts, mindful of the needs of an international audience; but also pragmatic is his use of whatever techniques, whatever degree of dissonance or consonance, of rhythmic and textural complexity, suit his expressive purposes at any point. The result might seem to be wilful eclecticism, but like many Baltic composers, his work is characterized by a lack of self-consciousness, a directness of expression that is disarming in its sincerity. Coming to maturity in a newly independent Latvia, he is not subject to the confining strictures of Socialist Realism, nor its mirror image, the equally constricting ideology of Western post-war modernism.
Following his Bachelors and Masters degrees in composition at the Music Academy in Riga, Ešenvalds undertook a wide range of occasional studies—with Jonathan Harvey and Michael Finnissy from the United Kingdom, with the American Richard Danielpour, and with Klaus Huber from Switzerland, among others. Contact with such differing aesthetic outlooks and compositional philosophies has helped him develop a flexible musical language that can encompass the fiercely articulate modernism of Frontiers of time (for strings), the neo-Impressionist orchestral study Clouds, as well as a simple a cappella arrangement of Amazing grace. He has written much instrumental and chamber music as well as a successful opera, Joseph is a fruitful bough, and if the choral medium has become an increasingly prominent strand of his practice in recent years, that should come as no surprise, for he is born of a culture that places choral singing at the very heart of its national identity. Indeed, he is intimate with the workings of the choral repertoire from the inside, as he is also a tenor in the professional State Choir Latvija. Yes, Eriks Ešenvalds is a pragmatic composer, embracing a medium he knows he has much to offer, and a truly modern one, creating opportunities for himself by reaching out to the world from his tiny country, researching his texts on the internet, and taking his inspiration from such diverse sources as the Jan Garbarek/Hilliard Ensemble Officium CD on the ECM label, or a French recording of Albanian folk music.
Before realizing his true vocation lay in music, Ešenvalds studied for two years in a Baptist seminary, and he remains deeply committed to the church, serving as director of music for the Vilande Baptist Congregation in Riga. The most substantial product to date of his profound religious faith, Passion and Resurrection was written in 2005 and premiered by Ma_ris Sirmais and the State Choir Latvija. Eschewing the single narrative perspective that characterizes the great Passion settings of the past, the composer has assembled an interlocking mosaic of texts from the gospels, from Byzantine and Roman liturgies, and from the Old Testament. The result (though given a seamless continuity by the music) is fragmentary—a series of snapshots, the tale told elliptically (if directly), combining action and reflection in equal measure; linear chronology is not always strictly observed, and the story begins with a fallen woman acknowledging the divinity of Jesus, and ends with Mary Magdalene (who may be that same fallen woman) recognizing the risen Christ. This circularity (and there are similar echoes and pre-echoes within the narrative) serves to emphasize that these are not historical events but are occurring in an eternal present, just as the passion and resurrection of Christ are re-enacted and re-experienced by Christians every week.
There are no designated characters in the piece: the chorus voices the words of Jesus and reports on events. The prominent solo soprano is a distinctively Marian and maternal presence, as the woman who anoints Christ’s feet, as the visionary Mary Magdalene, and as a tenderly sympathetic observer of Jesus and his mother’s suffering. The string ensemble by turns amplifies the choral textures, offers a static underpinning with sustained drones, and subtly undercuts the vocal message with ironic counterpoints of its own.
The work is in four parts, each prefaced by lines from scripture, which play without a break. Part I opens with four solo voices singing a setting of Parce mihi by the sixteenth-century Spaniard Cristóbal de Morales; seemingly preludial, this objet trouvé is soon established as an important other-worldly presence as gently dissonant string chords are laid over it, and the solo quartet returns subsequently with Morales-derived material, always a hauntingly alien feature in the musical landscape. The soprano recitative that follows is both lamenting and ecstatic, supported by long-drawn string textures which reveal the distinctive harmonic tincture of the work—fluidly modal, flecked with chromaticism, and inclined to downwards semitonal step-movement in the bass. The choral benediction that ends this section has a beatific calm, though as it dissolves into whispers uncertainty returns with an uneasily transparent string chorale.
Part II begins with open-fifth drones in the lower instruments, anchoring the restless lament of the choir in a static D minor, sardonic violin figures offering their own dissident commentary. As the drama intensifies, the sense of foreboding increases, with downward harmonic shifts and greater chromatic density. There is a pounding muscularity to this account of Jesus’s humiliation which culminates in hammered shouts of ‘crucify’, haloed by a shrieking string texture ‘imitating extremely nervous clamours of seagulls’ (the composer instructs). After a fortissimo call for forgiveness, ‘they know not what they do’, subject to multiple repetitions, the solo quartet returns, their tonal certainties anointed with healing balm from the soprano, though as the chorus murmurs a Latin version of the quartet’s words, instability returns as the strings tell a different harmonic story.
Part III has a simple rondo structure. Over an ‘eternal’ pedal C, the soloist offers up an extended meditation, ambiguous in modality and embellished with grace notes and glissandi, while a single violin provides an agitated, flickering descant. Twice the soloist is answered by the choir with luminous diatonic clarity, as two lone sopranos soar to seraphic heights; the second time around this blissful resignation erupts into anguished cries and the final grieving is shared by the soloist and the choir, the strings adding to the desolation with subtle enrichments of the voicing. Again, the solo quartet has the last word, as Jesus gives up his spirit.
The melismatic, rapturous unaccompanied solo that opens Part IV is echoed by hushed choral chanting, cushioned by strings. The landscape is bare, as sighing pairs of chords haltingly descend over an inner pedal. The dazzling moment when ‘the Lord is risen’ is exultant and brief; there is a hiatus of uncertainty before the act of recognition that is the crux of the matter is heralded by the solo quartet. Their rapt repetitions of ‘Mariam’ draw in the choir, hesitant at first yet ultimately glowing as they settle into a gentle oscillation of two chords; the voice of Mary Magdalene soars above them with quiet radiance. Over and over again they call to each other, hypnotic and serene, as a luminescent string chorale slowly ascends to the heights. Yet there is an ambiguity at the very end—which of the two chords is perceived as the ‘tonic’? This lack of finality is essential, for the story must, and will, begin again.
For the next two pieces, the composer turned to secular American sources. Evening sets a brief poem by Sara Teasdale, who took her own life after an unhappy marriage and the suicide of a close friend and admirer, fellow-poet Vachel Lindsay. This magical little tone poem is really an exploration of just a few chords, simple triads that are subtly piqued as they frequently telescope into each other. Against this static backdrop, sopranos and altos limn the dusk chorus and a first glimpse of the stars. The piece doesn’t really go anywhere, it simply is, full of innocent wonderment at the close of the day. Night Prayer is a more extended nocturne, a prayer for protection to the goddess of night. The words are by Glendora J Bowling, a retired medical practitioner and published poet. Here we encounter again the composer’s very personal extended tonality, an ever-shifting harmony that frequently contains simultaneous tonics and subdominants, often coming to rest in unexpected places, like a sudden shaft of light. Melodies are full of his characteristic flattened sixths; textures can be rich in polyphonic elaboration, octave doublings picking out salient strands of the fabric, or they can reduce down to drones and long-held chords that support the bright shards of colour above, Ešenvalds’ beloved solo sopranos (and altos) prominently spotlit. The work begins in stillness and quiet, becoming increasingly dense and restless and reaching a fierce brilliance of ‘elation’ before winding down to the hushed supplication of its opening.
Dating from the same year, 2006, A drop in the ocean commemorates the life Mother Teresa of Calcutta. The piece is the most extended example of Ešenvalds’ use of avant-garde techniques to serve his particular expressive ends: the ‘mystical’ atmosphere of the opening is achieved by a combination of whistling and the sounds of quiet breathing; a mysterious and elusive world is immediately conjured up. The altos murmur a self-communing Pater noster on a monotone, while the sopranos’ plaintive prayer is shadowed by a blurred version of the same melody. Their serenity is contrasted with the male voices’ troubled, whispered rendering of that same prayer, which increases in intensity and venom as an unsynchronized pentatonic texture builds above them, eventually introducing the flattened sixth that will characterize the music that follows. After a brief blaze of light comes a sustained paragraph of saturated, ecstatic, ten-part polyphony. Eventually a solo soprano emerges—there is something of the Evangelical call-and-response tradition in her interaction with the full choir—before a lush cadence winds down into one of Ešenvalds’ ‘eternal’ codas, and we hear the same oscillation of tonic and subdominant chords that ends Passion and Resurrection. In live performance, as the soloist’s repeated entreaties are gradually enveloped by muffled whistling, a semi-translucent cloth is drawn over the heads of the singers; once they are completely covered, and sound has returned to silence, the cloth reveals the face of Mother Teresa.
The winning entry in the Young Composers category of the 2006 International Rostrum for Composers Competition, Legend of the walled-in woman memorializes a very different Albanian woman. It deals with another kind of (involuntary) sacrifice for the greater good, in this case the rather less earth-shattering matter of the survival of a castle in northern Albania which was built by three brothers to protect themselves from Roman and Greek invaders. According to the legend, their mother had a dream that, in order to prevent the castle from being mysteriously destroyed every night, one of them would have to offer his wife as a sacrifice. Two brothers warned their wives about the dream but the third did not; the next day she set off for the castle to bring them food, and there she was immured inside the foundations.
Like Passion and Resurrection, the work begins with an objet trouvé—in this case an Albanian folksong that is the source of the legend. Again, with its strange ululations and glissandi, its ornamentation and keening repetitions, the folksong is immediately established as an alien musical presence. Similarly, the story is told not as a straightforward narrative, but through ellipsis; the piece is not dramatic but contemplative. Its structure is simple: three times material from the original folksong (sung by a solo quintet at a distance) is followed by a setting of the same words for the full choir. The texture is characteristically sonorous, with multiple divisi; the harmony is tonal, invigorated by passing dissonances, the tessitura wide, as intertwined upper voices soar above more slow-moving deeply rooted lower parts. In an extended coda polyphony dissolves into homophony: tolling, incantatory chords create a static pulsation that underscores plaintive wisps of melody from one, then two solo sopranos, who intone (in English) an epitaph for the walled-in woman. Gradually tendrils of folksong are re-woven into the texture, their tonality finally reconciled with that of the choir, as the music recedes into silence.
The final work in the programme is the simplest. Long Road is a setting of a love poem by Paulina Barda (widow of the eminent poet Fricis Barda), who died in 1983 at the age of ninety-three; set in the original Latvian, it was Ešenvalds’s contribution to Love madrigals, a collection of new commissions to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the remarkable youth choir Kamer…, and this English version was specially made for Stephen Layton and Polyphony, to whom it is dedicated. It has the plain sincerity of a hymn, being homophonic throughout, and its thorough-going diatonicism is straightforward yet lush. At the midway point, a gentle susurration of bell-sounds and ocarinas appears unexpectedly, there is a brief downwards shift of a third, followed by an elated return to the home key, decorated by soloistic descants, before sustained vocalise and a return of the evanescent tinkling ushers the piece to its close.
Gabriel Jackson © 2011