ERIKS ESENVALDS: Passion and Resurrection; Evening; Night Prayer; A drop in the ocean; Legend of the walled-in woman; Long Road – Carolyn Sampson, soprano/ Polyphony/ Britten Sinfonia/ Stephen Layton, conductor – Hyperion 67796, 64:09 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
Eriks Esenvalds (b. 1977) is a Latvian composer who, according to the notes, comes from a new Latvia free of all repressive Socialist Realism strictures. Yet his music is hardly avant-garde either, and his teachers have included Jonathan Harvey and Richard Danielpour, among others, in a very cosmopolitan set. But his music will inevitably remind any listener of Arvo Pärt or earlier John Taverner. It is, as is so much music from that part of the world, ecstatic in nature, reveling in the harmonies of the cosmos and not nearly as concerned with forward motion as in tradition music, though the music does move and progress. His choral textures are brilliantly woven with the most subtle polyphony, and he has an instinctive feel for the mixtures of range-driven textures, always setting his choristers in the best light possible in relation to each other in terms of sound and comfortableness.
His Baptist roots are present in this hybrid of a tradition passion called Passion and Resurrection in that he does not follow the traditional “passion” scheme but instead chooses to visit the gospels and religious texts piecemeal and out of order, jumping in here and leaving there in an attempt to make a coherent theological story even if it is out of order sequentially. Evening is a short piece based on a poem of suicide victim Sara Teasdale, who suffered an unhappy marriage and the suicide of a close friend. The beautifully highlighted women’s voices are part and parcel of Night Prayer, an extended nocturne as a prayer for protection to the goddess of the night. A drop in the ocean is a tribute to Mother Teresa, and makes use of extended vocal techniques like whistling and quiet breathing, along with monotones to produce a contrived “mystical” sound of great ethereal wonder. Legend of the walled-in woman comes from an Albanian story where a woman essentially offers her life in order to save a castle, and has as its source a beautiful and haunting Albanian folksong that actually is the source of the legend. Paulina Barda created the poem Long Road which is set here as a homophonic song, gorgeously rendered with rich choral textures and the sound of bells in the middle.
I have learned to buy automatically anything that soprano Carolyn Sampson appears in, and she doesn’t disappoint here. The work of Polyphony, as usual, is superb, with Stephen Layton guiding all down the straight and narrow with no flubs and excellent execution. A tremendous disc and an important choral composer.
— Steven Ritter
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