“Northern Lights” = Works of ERIKS ESENVALDS – Sally Pryce, harp/ Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge/ Stephen Layton – Hyperion

“Northern Lights” = ERIKS ESENVALDS: O salutaris Hostia; The new moon; Psalm 67; Trinity Te Deum; Trinity Brass; Northern Lights; The heavens’ flock; The earthly rose; Magnificat, Nunc dimittis (Merton College Service); Rivers of light; Ubi caritas; Amazing grace; O Emmanuel; Who can sail without the wind?; Stars; Only in sleep – Sally Pryce, harp/ Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge/ Stephen Layton – Hyperion CDA68083, 67:48 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ***:

Layton’s Choir is brilliant, make no mistake; it would also be a lie to suggest that I did not get much pleasure from this collection of the very devout composer Eriks Esenvalds. I also cannot determine how thoroughly his piety is infused into his music, always a difficult thing to determine with any composer. Compared to his previous offering that I reviewed, this one is of much softer stuff indeed.

But from a purely sacred music standpoint to me it feels as if the music lacks the last instance of “bite” that the greatest religious music offers—including the aforementioned piece. Esenvalds presents us with beautifully crafted, idiomatically scored choral music that hits the right moments with the requisite chills down the spine, but ultimately proves much too saccharine in tone for extended listening. To be fair, not all of this is religious music, but even those few folk-song inspired pieces that stray from the sacred are nonetheless haunted by it. This in itself is no bad thing, but eventually the composer’s sense of mystery and faith come into conflict with the very real aspects of life in the world today, and take us into the world of Narnia instead of heaven. The latter is of course, taken by violence (not my words!) and I miss the realism of the sacred struggle.

Nonetheless, much here is rarified and quite lovely, indicative of a young composer in the thralls of an abundance of talent—hopefully he will be able to expand the emotional tone somewhat in the future. Hyperion’s sound, set down at Trinity College Chapel and Ely Cathedral, is superb, as well we expect after so many years of Hyperion expertise in this idiom.

—Steven Ritter

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