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

'When composing a work, I give myself to the temptation of the creative work -- a journey, whose twisting roads persistently, but convincingly, bring me to the final sounds of the score.

'Only then do I exhale,' says Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds (born 1977 at Priekule) whose orchestral, chamber, choral, vocal and piano works have been performed in Europe and the USA.

Esenvalds will spend two years beginning this October (2011) as a 'fellow commoner' at the University of Cambridge's Trinity College.

Hitherto he studied at the Jazeps Vitols Latvian Academy of Music, where he graduated in 2002. He currently has his post-graduate studies there with Selga Mence (born 1953 at Liepaja) in the Composition Department of the Academy.

He has attended classes with many composers, including Richard Danielpour (France, 2001), Michael Finnissy, Marek Kopelent, and Guy Reibel (Czech Republic, 2001) and Martin Herman and Dana Paul Perna (Latvia, 2002).

Esenvalds' half hour Passion and Resurrection (2005), for soprano, choir and chamber orchestra pulls no punches in conveying the pivotal events of Christianity. For most of its length the text draws on Old Testament prophecy and three Gospels (ie Matthew, Luke and John). Thus: Job 7: 16-21, Byzantine liturgy, Luke 7: 48, 50, Mathew 26: 38, 42 and 27: 28, 31, Tenebrae for Maundy Thursday, Byzantine liturgy, Stabat Mater, Mathew 27: 46, Psalm 22: 17-18, Psalm 143: 3, Isaiah 53: 5, John 19: 28, 30, Hallelujah at mass on the finding of the Holy Cross, Luke 24: 5-6, John 20: 15-16.

Esenvalds makes oblique reference to a Spanish motet by Renaissance composer Cristóbal de Morales (c1500-1553). Similarly he alludes to Eastern vocal idioms, and adds a subordinate string motif as if to evoke the indissoluable faith once shared between Church and parishioners.

It's difficult, if not impossible, to imagine Britten Sinfonia surpassed in this music by a Baltic ensemble; viz, Gidon Kremer's 'Kremerata Baltica' or Katarina Andreasson's 'Swedish Chamber Orchestra'.

Just the same the whole crew were doubly fortunate with their central 'vocal' character.

Here is the unadorned Easter story as related in the scriptures and fundamentally conveyed from the distraught perspective of Mary Magdalene sung by Bedford born, Birmingham trained, globally acclaimed soprano,Carolyn Sampson.

Carolyn has performed the title role in Semele, Pamina in The Magic Fluteplus roles in The Coronation of Poppea and The Fairy Queen.

She will return to Glyndebourne Festival Opera for a 2012 Fairy Queenrevival while concert engagements have found her with the Hallé, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, City of Birmingham Symphony, Royal Concertgebouw, Freiburg Baroque, Leipzig Gewandhaus, San Francisco Symphony, Detroit Symphony and St Paul Chamber Orchestras.

This year (2011) marked her debut with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and in 2012 she debuts with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Riccardo Chailly, and with the Gürzenich Orchestra under Markus Stenz.

Her numerous recordings have appeared on Hyperion, harmonia mundi, Virgin Classics and Linn Records.

Most recently created (2010) among the present newly recorded works isLong Road, the setting of a love poem by Paulina Barda (1890-1983), the widow of Latvian pantheistic nature poet Fricis Barda (1880-1919).The first of three verses indicates the sentiments expressed by Ms Barda.

I love you night and day, as a star in the distant sky.
And I mourn for this one thing alone:
That to love, our lifetime was so short.

For 2'8" Long Road resembles sung worship in any local parish Church. Then, after a short Ligeti-like melisma, the opening motif returns with descant voices. Finally the music fades to oblivion.

This work was Esenvalds' contribution to a collection of love madrigals commissioned for the twentieth anniversary of the youth choir Kamer ... recipient of the Latvian Great Music Award (2000 and 2005). Even more in1998, 2003 and 2008, Kamer won the national choir competition at the Latvian Song and Dance Festival.

Over the last two decades Kamer ... has perfected its special sound by cultivating its own distinctive performance style and modes of expression. It has worked with prominent musicians and composers and toured as far afield as Turkey, China, the United States, and Ireland. Aina Bajare and Ansis Sauka have worked as the choir's vocal pedagogues for many years.

The words of Night Prayer are by Glendora J Bowling (born 1956, USA), an obscure, retired medical professional, published poet and writer. As this setting unfolds Esenvalds follows an indeterminate musical trajectory with no fixed apogee. However, here and throughout their four remaining items, Polyphony overcome numerous hurdles of intonation with devastating accuracy. In this item I found the doggerel-like text hardly worthy of so glorious a setting.

It begins:

Mistress of night watching down on me
Hear my humble prayers I beg of thee.
Send forth your healing powers
Ease my suffering in gloomy hours ...

Bowling is published (on line) by Elfwood (established 1996), a popular web-based alternative art gallery and online community focusing on original fiction, art and writing. Its founder Thomas Abrahamsson claims Elfwood is the largest science fiction and fantasy art site in the world. Abrahamsson is a member of the academic computer society Lysator, in Linköping, Sweden.

Evening is the work of Missouri-born lyric poet Sara Teasdale (1884-1933). Prior to 1914 she courted poet Vachel Lindsay who was absolutely in love with her. Nonetheless she married Ernst Filsinger and divorced him in 1929after fifteen years together. Her friend Vachel Lindsay, now married with children, committed suicide in 1931. Two years later she took her own life. In less than three-and-a-half minutes, Teasdale carbon-copies classical eighteenth century English style in miniature. It's the shortest and vocally perhaps the most straightforward item yet, after further acquaintance with the entire programme, Evening has this Latvian composer's unmistakable imprint.

Esenvalds' setting of A drop in the ocean (track 7) commemorates the life of Mother Teresa. utilizing Pater Noster, the Lord's Prayer (Luke 11: 2-4), the prayer of St Francis of Assisi (thirteenth century), Song of the Sisters of the Calcutta Mission (Psalm 55: 6-8), and a quote by Mother Teresa: 'My work is nothing but a drop in the ocean, but if I did not put that drop, the ocean would be one drop the less.'

At its start the composition is eerie and discomfiting with whistling, audible breathing, and chattering, inarticulate voices; may not these be indices of the Calcutta Mission? In a mood of strange calm they segue to surpassing, prayerful vocals; truly engrossing writing. At its closing the (above) words of Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu (also known as Mother Teresa) emerge like a benediction. Beyond all question this is exciting music of the utmost graciousness.

Legend of the Walled-in Woman was commissioned by Latvian Radio Choir and its conductor Sigvards Klava. It was premiered at the 2005 festival Klangspuren in Austria and won the 2006 (under-thirty-year-olds) competition of the International Music Council, UNESCO and Radio in Paris. The grisly yarn is re-imagined by Albanian writer Martin Camaj (1925-1992), with a translation by specialist in Albanian affairs, Robert Elsie (born 1950 in Vancouver). Camaj recounts events originating (circa) 2,700 years ago when Rozafa Castle was built near the city of Shkodër in northwestern Albania. The legend, adapted from a Balkan folk song focuses on three brothers who set about building the castle. They worked all day, but the walls fell down at night.

One night, their mother had a dream: one of the brothers should offer his wife as a sacrifice, then the castle would stand firm. The faithfulness of the youngest brother and the life sacrifice of his young wife, Rosafa, are portrayed as elements of symbolic importance. Historians today believe the legend, dating to days of the Assyrian Empire to the east, has its basis in fact.

Hyperion, Esenvalds, Layton, Sampson, Shave, her Britten Sinfonia and Polyphony have reason to be satisfied with their superlative recording. Intending purchasers be warned. A number of others have found Esenvalds' music uncommonly addictive.

Reviewed by Howard Smith


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