Esenvalds: Passion and Resurrection & Other Choral Works (CD Review - American Record Guide, 2011)

Hyperion has done it again, with this stunning album of mostly sacred choral works by the younger-generation Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds, perfectly performed by Stephen Layton’s ever-welcome Polyphony and Carolyn Sampson, one of our finest sopranos— supported by the strings of the Britten Sinfonia. Layton, like many of his top-tier colleagues, can’t resist the remarkable flood of new music from today’s Baltic choral com- posers, and has chosen one of the most interesting and appealing of them for this release. Esenvalds’s music has appeared in a couple of collections (that I haven’t heard), but this is apparently the first internationally available release devoted entirely to his works.

Esenvalds (b 1977) has emerged as a highly promising new voice in his native Latvia, com- posing in assorted genres (including opera). But, in keeping with the incredibly vibrant and all-pervasive Latvian choral tradition (he remains an active choral singer), his muse has led him ever farther into the choral medium. He has studied with a wide range of influential composers, and his approach is very flexible, leaving him open to many influences and “isms”, which he taps as necessary to suit his musical designs. You’ll hear reflections of everything from ancient chant and organum to the most modern of avant-garde techniques. His harmonic schemes are thus incredibly varied, employing anything from the purest diatonic intervals to complex dissonance. Any specific style or readily discernible personal voice is difficult to pin down. But however he does it, the end result is music of rich emotion, haunting gentleness, staggering power, and startling beauty.

But one quality that’s not hard to peg is the fathomless depth of his religious faith: Esenvalds was a seminarian for two years before he apparently decided that he could share his spirituality better through music. He’s de- scribed in the excellent notes as a very pragmatic composer, not only for his adaptations of many influences, but in the design of his creations according to the occasions, as well as the abilities and priorities of the musicians at hand. He often sets English texts, aiming to reach the broadest possible international audience.

By far the most substantial and impressive work here (nearly 28 minutes) is the strings - supported Passion and Resurrection, a very different treatment of the Easter story. There’s no evangelist or other omniscient narrator; the story is told by elements of the forces at hand: full choir, sub-ensembles, or soloists—with, for the most part, no specific character or role assignment. Texts—English and Latin—are a random assortment of biblical snippets, classic Christian texts (like the Stabat Mater), and passages from Byzantine liturgy. The texts don’t necessarily follow the precise chronological sequence of Holy Week events; for example, Jesus’s seven last utterances from the cross are scattered across the entire work, save for the opening section.

Speaking of sections, the work has four of them, with the first functioning as a kind of preliminary meditation. Then each section treats a series of Passion episodes, with commentaries interspersed. The second section treats the events of Maundy Thursday, the third Good Friday, and the fourth the Resurrection. Some of the lesser episodes (like Peter’s denial of Christ) and many details of the biblical narrative are omitted. Certain events are implied rather than specifically related. The Resurrection is treated in the simplest possible way, via brief snippets from the gospel of John that recount Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene. In fact, the work ends with an incredible moment of spiritual warmth and ecstasy, as Jesus (embodied by the choir) simply repeats “Mariam”, while the soprano soloist murmers “Rabboni” (master): the entire resurrection story is thus condensed into just two loving words. This is one of the tenderest, yet most shattering moments of spiritual emotion I’ve encountered in any piece of sacred music.

There are five shorter a cappella pieces as well, all of varied musical character and impressive effect. There are several secular numbers among them—though all of them, to my ears, seem to have a spiritual dimension. Performances are superb. Carolyn Sampson is, as usual, amazing: even her extreme hightessitura passages (as in the opening section of Passion and Resurrection) sound unforced and lovely. Hyperion’s sound quality is impeccable. Choral fans on the prowl for today’s very finest composers are strongly urged to make Esenvald’s acquaintance. 

Reviewed by the American Record Guide 

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