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The intensely practical choral music of the young Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds is steadily gaining appreciation across the world. The works on this new album owe their genesis to commissions from the United States, England and northern Europe and encompass ethereal expressions of uniquely arctic phenomena (listen for wine glasses turned—and tuned—to wondrously simple but devastating effect within the choral texture), American ballads and several works in the ‘Anglican tradition’, the fruits of the composer’s recent residency at Trinity College Cambridge.
Trinity College Choir Cambridge here returns the compliment, as it were, with superlative performances of these varied and engaging works, all recorded under the watchful eye of the composer and conductor Stephen Layton.
The last few years have seen Ešenvalds’ international reputation grow enormously: from 2011 to 2013 he was Fellow-Commoner at Trinity College, Cambridge, and most of the pieces on this recording were written for British or American choirs. And there has also been a change in his musical language over these years, a move towards a greater simplicity: many of these pieces are completely diatonic and completely homophonic, the words made music in the most direct and clear way possible.
Ešenvalds studied for two years at a Baptist Seminary before deciding music was his true vocation. He remains deeply religious and he has set many sacred texts throughout his career; but there is also an apprehension of the divine in many of his secular pieces—the divine as seen in the night sky, in the stars, in the heavens. Ēriks Ešenvalds is a dreamer, he gazes up and dreams—of eternity, of paradise, of that better world onto which music can offer a magical window, and he shows us that better world with rare beauty and spiritual integrity.
O salutaris hostia has quickly become one of Ešenvalds’ most popular pieces. Originally written for female voices, the version for full choir recorded here was first heard in 2009. It is a gentle meditation, completely diatonic, its dynamic level only once rising to mezzo forte. Over a hushed chorale for full choir, rich in added notes, curlicues of melody from two solo sopranos drift across the soundscape, alternately echoing and imitating each other or carolling together in thirds. The effect is quietly ecstatic, a brief moment of adoration and wonderment.
Chorales of a rather different hue form the basis of The new moon. This was Ēriks Ešenvalds’ contribution to Moon Songs, a 2012 collection of pieces about the moon by ten Latvian composers that was commissioned by the outstanding Riga-based youth choir Kamēr… (which translates as ‘While…’). The words are by the troubled and tragic Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Sara Teasdale, who died by her own hand in 1933, and whom Ešenvalds has set on a number of occasions.
The opening chorale is a forthright one, accusing and angry, its diatonic dissonances intensified by sidesteps into homophonic canon. But as the moon is caught sight of ‘over the factories … in the cloudy seas’, the texture itself clouds over as the canonic iterations are gradually subsumed into an oscillating pair of thick, quiet chords. From the hard-won stillness a new chorale emerges as the ‘maiden moon wakes up in the sky’ (the moon is male in Latvian mythology, but not here). Tuned wine glasses and chimes create an other-worldly halo around this wondrous apparition, which eventually recedes into unresolved nothingness, as the afterglow resonates into silence.
The afterglow of Ešenvalds’ engagement with the Anglican choral tradition, as could be experienced on a daily basis during his time in Cambridge, can be heard in Psalm 67, premiered by Stephen Layton and Polyphony in Amsterdam in 2012. Twice a solo baritone chant replete with the characteristic cadence of countless versicles (a deliberate allusion or an unconscious borrowing?) is answered by the full choir in chordal writing of questing, shifting tonality. This is the most chromatic music on this recording—a music of mingled praise and apprehension. At the close of the piece the baritone’s chanted melody returns, again with its occasional octave doubling by sopranos and altos—an especially subtle bit of voicing—but this time anchored by a sustained chord of E flat. The last word of the piece is simply ‘God’—the voice of supplication distilled to a single syllable.
The Trinity Te Deum is a re-imagining in Ešenvalds’ terms of another Anglican tradition, that of ceremonial music for a grand occasion. It was commissioned for the Installation of Sir Gregory Winter as Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, on 10 October 2012. This brief and brilliant hymn of praise opens with flashing fanfares from brass and organ, the choir’s declamation by turns jubilant and hushed before a ‘magical’ organ modulation leads to a contrasting centre. Anchored by an eternal drone, and flecked with harp decoration, this has the air of both a gentle, stately dance and a naive folksong. The tripartite structure of the hymn is respected with a return of the opening material but this is the briefest of reprises (the text is truncated too): three ecstatic shouts of ‘Holy’ and the rejoicing is done.
The ecstatic collision of energetic charged particles with atoms in the high altitude atmosphere known as the ‘aurora borealis’ is the subject of Northern Lights, commissioned in 2012 by the Choir of the West at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. Named in 1621 by the French astronomer Pierre Gassendi after Aurora, the Roman goddess of dawn, and Boreas, the Greek god of the north wind, the Northern Lights have fascinated and terrified all who have seen them from the beginning of time: many cultures have tried to account for this remarkable and beautiful sight, some seeing it as threatening, others as benign. Latvian folkore, for example, tells that the Northern Lights are the restless spirits of fallen warriors, still fighting their battles in the sky.
Ešenvalds combines a Latvian folk song, sung by a solo tenor, with less fearful, and factual, observations of the Northern Lights by two nineteenth-century Arctic explorers, Charles Francis Hall and Fridtjof Nansen. In a lilting triple-time metre throughout, with tuned glasses played by the singers adding an unearthly aura at salient points, the music is full of wonder, with an especially dramatic moment of revelation early on. Twice, a moment of special transcendence is summoned up by the gentle sound of chimes and, after a return of the opening folk song, it is they who have the last word in a quiet, but questioning, apotheosis of magical bell-sounds.
The heavens’ flock is another of Ešenvalds’ celestial meditations and another American commission, this time for Ethan Sperry and the Portland State Chamber Choir. The words are by Paulann Petersen, the Poet Laureate of the state of Oregon. This is a simpler vision than that of Northern Lights, but its single paragraph is glowing in its diatonic certainty; the poem’s blaze may be small, but it is bright and it is beautiful.
The similarly diatonic The earthly rose is an excerpt from City Songs, an hour-long sequence of short movements for choirs of varying ability, the whole work being premiered under Stephen Layton’s direction in London in 2013. The words are by the Australian Emma Jones. With its liquescent harp accompaniment this little urban piece has the simplicity and sincerity of a folk song.
The Merton College Service (Magnificat and Nunc dimittis), also from 2013, was commissioned by the college for The Merton Choirbook—an extensive collection of new works to celebrate the college’s 750th anniversary. The work is unusual for a modern setting, being both unaccompanied and in Latin. It is also entirely syllabic and homophonic, and has perhaps something of the Tudor Short Service about it in its simplicity and gentle austerity. In contrast to the chanted declamation of the canticles themselves, the Glorias find a solo voice (whether soprano or alto is unspecified in the score) underpinned by lush sustained chords, before a briefly refulgent Amen resolves onto an ‘ancient’ bare fifth.
Rivers of light might be seen as a companion piece to Northern Lights and, indeed, it revisits some of the same ideas. It has a similar folk-song opening—this time from the Sámi people of Scandinavia (the piece was commissioned by the Swedbank Choir in Riga, Swedbank being a Swedish bank with a big presence in Latvia). This is eventually combined with another Sámi folk song for a male voice over another of Ešenvalds’ ‘eternal’ chorales, and the words of the explorers Fridtjof Nansen and Charles Francis Hall also appear in a kaleidoscope of texts that facilitates a sustained but varied musical vision of light—specifically the Northern Lights—in its many forms.
The equally light-filled Ubi caritas was written in 2008 for six-part female voices, for the Latvian vocal ensemble Anima Sola (who also premiered O salutaris hostia). It is a simple strophic setting, two statements of a luminous, weightless verse being followed by a quietly radiant Amen.
The earliest work on this recording is Ešenvalds’ arrangement of Amazing grace, made for Kamēr… in 2004. It is a kind of chorale-variation set—the famous tune is never exactly the same each time it is heard. After its initial statement by a solo soprano the melody becomes gradually more embedded in a rich eight-part texture; instead of the usual ascending semitonal key-shifts, descending modulations serve to ratchet up the intensity and lead to an ecstatic peroration in the home key.
A traditional melody of a different kind—the ancient plainchant O Emmanuel—is at the heart of the second piece in this programme to have been written for Merton College, Oxford, this time commissioned by the Chaplain, the Revd Dr Simon Jones. It is the final work in a composite sequence of all seven Advent Antiphons by seven different composers. First sung by a solo voice and then by tutti altos, the plainchant is threaded through another of Ešenvalds’ gentle chorales, the glowing final cadence suffused with quiet joy and anticipation.
The brief Who can sail without the wind? is another folk-based piece, an arrangement of the very popular Swedish song Vem kan segla förutan vind?. Originally premiered by the upper voices of the Netherlands Children’s Choir, this English-language version for full choir was made for Stephen Layton and Trinity College Choir. A lilting, arpeggiated harp accompaniment is the unobtrusive foil to a quietly homophonic telling of the folk tale.
Another setting of words by Sara Teasdale is Stars, which Ešenvalds made in 2011 for Salt Lake Vocal Artists/Salt Lake Choral Artists. His favourite tuned wine glasses are a constant presence in the piece, a glistening accompaniment to the glowing simplicity of this vision of ‘beating hearts of fire’ seen overhead on a still, dark night. The wondrousness of a ‘heaven full of stars’ is evoked by a radiant chorale before a repeated oscillation of a pair of chords, adding to the magic, recedes into silence.
Sara Teasdale completes the programme. Only in sleep was written in 2010 for the University of Louisville Collegiate Chorale and Cardinal Singers. Teasdale’s nostalgic vision of childhood re-experienced through dreams is expressed in simple verse in regular metre, and Ešenvalds matches this in music of regular four-bar phrases. But infinitely subtle are the chord voicings; a change from humming to vocalise to spotlight a phrase here, or internal doublings to highlight a particular line in the texture there—all serve to sustain the freshness, and the soaring descants are achingly expressive. The soprano soloist heard at the opening returns at the close, lost in reverie, as her musing, florid arabesques float over one last pair of chordal oscillations, winding down to nothing.
Gabriel Jackson © 2015