As John Quinn has already reviewed this recording in detail, and I have listened to it in both CD and download format, I would normally have included a brief note in Download News, but it’s more important than that. It’s certainly not that I disagree with my colleague: I very rarely do except in the most insignificant of details, but it’s been some time since his review appeared and a reminder may be timely.
Ever since Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs took us by storm more than 20 years ago the record companies have brought us a steady stream of tuneful music from Eastern European composers who are motivated by a strong faith. Notable among recent releases has been the Gimell collection of Arvo Pärt’s music which JQ and I made Recording of the Month (Tintinnabuli).
Now I’m pleased to welcome Latvian composer Eriks Ešenvalds’ second complete album. The first was also recorded by Stephen Layton for Hyperion, with Polyphony (Passion and Resurrection, CDA67796). Of the music included here, only his Merton College Service has been recorded before, by the college who commissioned it, on The Merton Collection (Delphian DCD34134). All the works on this new album arise from commissions from the United States, England and northern Europe.
There’s an attractive mix of what the publicity material calls, with justification, ‘ethereal expressions of uniquely arctic phenomena’. Listen for wine glasses turned—and tuned—to wonderfully simple but devastating effect within the choral texture in Stars, American ballads and several works in the ‘Anglican tradition’, composed during the composer’s recent residency at Trinity College, Cambridge, whose choir feature in the recording.
There’s not much in the way of competition: Stars is included on an album by Voces8 (Lux: Decca 4788053) and O Emmanuel on Advent at Merton (Delphian DCD34122). We don’t seem to have reviewed Lux, which I streamed from Qobuz, but that’s an attractive collection of mainly sweet-toothed confections from contemporary composers—some of the others are Lauridsen and Mealor—and their predecessors such as Allegri, the inevitable Miserere, Tallis and Taverner. Stars is an attractive piece and it’s well performed on both recordings, but I prefer it in the all-Ešenvalds context on track 15 of the Hyperion, where it’s in the company of a more varied programme than on Lux.
I’m happy to play the Hyperion right through but hearing Lux in one go is a bit too much like Danish pastry for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Though there’s much on the Hyperion recording that is equally ethereal—Northern Lights, for example (track 5), which gives its name to the whole collection—there’s plenty of stronger stuff, too, such as The New Moon (track 2).
As for the performances, I doubt that Voces8 could equal the Trinity College Choir in some of the items on the Hyperion album. The Common Prayer text of Te Deum (tr.4) for example will have been sung within the college chapel innumerable times and in countless settings since Merbecke set it in 1549 for Cranmer’s first English prayer book and the Anglican chant setting of Psalm 67 (tr.3) also fits into their cycle of services where it’s prescribed for Evensong on the 12th day. If there is one item on this album that didn’t quite gel for me, it’s this rather workaday psalm setting.
In the two canticles from the Merton Service the rivals are the choir for whom the music was composed. I’m not going to get into Oxford-Cambridge disputes here, though I’m currently hoping for a dark-blue outcome from the Boat Race. Both John Quinn and I had the highest praise for The Merton Collection (see above) and I’m not about to unsay what I said then. You need both.
With excellent recording and splendid notes, I can only welcome this with enthusiasm. I’ve even stolen JQ's words for the brief summary which appears with the daily and monthly listing.