Esenvalds: Passion and Resurrection & Other Choral Works (CD Review - Entartete Musik, 2011)

Polyphony and Hyperion Records have done more to broaden our choral taste than any other choir or record company in this country. After excellent recent surveys of Gabriel Jackson, Morten Lauridsen, Paweł Łukaszewski and Eric Whitacre, the second `greatest choir in the world` (according to Gramophone) has released a disc of music by the Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds. Unlike the diaphanous shimmer of Whitacre or Lauridsen, Ešenvalds is not in the business of making belief beautiful. This disc is a passionate and often difficult testament, which Polyphony performs with great verve.

The main focus is Ešenvalds` 2005 cantata Passion and Resurrection. A fragmentary collection of texts and sounds, including Morales` `Parce mihi` (hints of the Hilliard Ensemble here), ancient chant and an ululating Marian voice (the superb Carolyn Sampson), overlap against an almost Penderecki-like string background. This is music that embraces cultures rather than privileging any one in particular. While the second section is more filmic, it nonetheless continues the intensity of the design and interchange of idiom. The Britten Sinfonia provides superb support throughout.

The crucifixion in the third part is divided between ferocious assault and eerie contemplation as snatches from the gospel are heard nostalgically against the gleam of the Polyphony sound. The desolation that follows is caught in hushed tones before a riotous outburst for the Resurrection proper. Out of this melée the soloist chants Mary Magdalene`s words. She greets the risen Christ without realising who it is. Hope is indicated by the music, though we have to hear through the snippets of music to glean its message.

After the potency of the first section, the second part of the disc looks at Ešenvalds` part songs and motets. Here the forms are less daring, though the harmonic language does not slump back into the familiar. A gloriously static `Evening` gives way to a more intense `Night Prayer`. Polyphony`s pin-point accurate intonation, coupled with a relish for the myriad suspensions and harmonic bruises of the texture, enlivens these more introspective pieces.

`A drop in the ocean`, commemorating Mother Teresa, is back in the dramatic spirit of Passion and Resurrection. Against a mantric `Pater noster`, shouted whispers and whistling winds, the sopranos chase each other in repetitive melismas. Faith is mysterious, heard not in the lush homophony of piled chords, but in the shreds of sound. These techniques are employed in the `Legend of the walled-in woman`, telling of a wife`s sacrifice for the greater good. `Long Road`, the final work on the disc (translated into English for Polyphony), allows us to appreciate the limpid warmth of the choir`s sound. And while the blend is impeccable, individual colours and voices are allowed to shine through.

After the explosion of gilded and somewhat cosy faith we`ve heard in the music of Lauridsen or Whitacre, Ešenvalds offers a fractured, testing alternative. It`s telling that his equally inspired English counterpart Gabriel Jackson provides the excellent liner notes for this release. By picking through the shards of Ešenvalds` musical memory, the listener finds a truer essence of faith; it makes for an original accompaniment to Passiontide.

Reviewed by Gavin Plumley
Entartete Musik

See Recording Details