THE DOORS OF HEAVEN. Eriks Esenvalds: The First Tears—Rivers of Light—A Drop in the Ocean—Passion and Resurrection—Portland State Chamber Choir, Portland State University String Ensemble/Ethan Sperry. Naxos 8.5790008.

Choral music is the gold standard that calls to mind the Christmas season and this is the most beautiful choral disc that I’ve heard in many moons (pun intended). Eriks Esenvalds (b. 1977) is an award winning Latvian composer who has five albums exclusively devoted to his work. His music walks the fine line between the beauty of lush textured tonality and complex, angular style that makes music of the 21st century so interesting. He chooses subjects that tell a story and the frisson between his two musical styles creates drama that illuminates the tale.  “I have learned first to find the idea or story of the piece,” Esenvalds said in an interview with choral conductor, composer and music journalist Andrea Angelini. “Then I go to the library to find perfectly suitable lyrics; and only then I have my nibbled pencil and a blank music sheet at my piano and compose the piece.”

The four narrative works on this CD cover subjects that range from the beauty of nature, religious faith and a folk legend that combines both. Esenvalds draws the story of The First Tears (2015) from a Native American (Inuit) legend where the Raven (the maker of the world) mistakenly destroys a whale—one of his own creations. The Raven then “wept the first tears the world had ever known.” Esenvalds uses Native American flutes, jaw harps, percussion and expanded vocal techniques to express the moods of the story. It’s the tone syllables rather than the words that create a mood of melancholy, horror and sorrow. The flutes and jaw harps add a tangy authenticity. It’s heartbreakingly beautiful. In Rivers of Light (2014), the composer juxtaposes Scandinavian folk melodies and British explorers’ journals to express the impact that the Northern Lights have on those who see them. The residents of Scandinavia are used to viewing them often, but the Brits, as sung by a soprano and baritone, are awed by their beauty and vitality. Their feelings of divine serenity seem as if they are “Opening the Doors of Heaven.”

A Drop in the Ocean (2009) is a portrait to the memory of Mother Theresa. It begins softly as sopranos sing her favorite prayer of St. Francis of Assisi (“Lord, make me a channel of your peace”), while the altos whisper the Lord’s Prayer. Then the altos shout and she screams (representing the weight of the world on her). Comfort is found in Mother Theresa’s famous words “My work is nothing but a drop in the ocean. But if I did not put that drop in the ocean, the ocean would be one drop the less.” It’s a stunning expression of the suffering and devotion of a saint.

Passion and Resurrection (2006) is a 30 minute oratorio for soprano, vocal quartet, choir and string orchestra. Esenvalds constructs his own libretto from a variety of liturgical sources—Byzantine liturgy, the Stabat Mater, and passages from Job, Isaiah, and the book of Psalms. It’s here that the composer uses the complexity of modern musical techniques to create real drama in a traditional story. A quartet singing a Renaissance motet and a dissonant string orchestra reflect Mary Magdalene’s guilt (soprano) of her own sins, but the chorus forgives her. The crucifixion scene is raw and violent, but Christ’s plea for forgiveness is moving. The death of Christ is a brilliant expression of each participant’s individual grief and the terror (rather than joy) of witnessing the resurrection. The work ends with a meditation on contemporary acceptance of the events and the meaning of them for our vision of eternity. This work combines story, drama and ravishing music and is deeply moving.

The Portland Chamber Choir and excellent soloists are magnificent, as is the recorded sound. This is lush choral music that celebrates the drama and spirit of the holidays.

—Robert Moon

Portland State Chamber Choir Website