St. Luke Passion: Sacred Works
Latvian Radio Choir
Ondine, ODE 1247-2, 2016
Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds continues to be one of the premiere choir music composers working today. His works are performed by choirs and enjoyed by audiences worldwide. Though perhaps his best known work is his choir music, his symphonic and operatic works also have achieved success.
One of Ešenvalds’ more ambitious compositional endeavors in recent years was his choral work “St. Luke Passion” (composed in 2014), a symphonic choral work based on Biblical texts from the Gospel of Luke and other sources and almost entirely in English. The 8 part work is the centerpiece of the album St. Luke Passion recorded by the Latvian Radio Choir, Sinfonietta Rīga and conductor Sigvards Kļava, and released in 2016 by the Finnish record label Ondine and produced by the Latvian Concert Agency Latvijas koncerti.
This is not Ešenvalds’ first major work on this theme – he composed the work “Passion and Resurrection” in 2005 (a work performed and recorded by the Latvian State Choir Latvija), and there are a few thematic similarities. The text for “Passion and Resurrection” was not taken from one specific Gospel, while the “St. Luke Passion” is almost entirely from the Gospel of Luke, though it also includes other texts and prayers to embellish the work.
Ešenvalds’ St. Luke Passion opens dramatically with a repeated cry of “Crucify him!” from the choir, a thunderous beginning and portent of the terror to come. The work also includes solo sections, and this performance includes the powerful voice of tenor Jānis Kurševs, who is a kind of narrator, describing the actions of Pontius Pilate, and at the same time trying to be a voice of reason against the howling mob, imploring “Why? What evil hath he done?”
Mezzo-soprano Ieva Parša is the focus of the second movement of the work, which presents the parallels, if not tragic irony, of a carpenter’s son having to bear a cross of wood. Parša’s performance, at once stately and tender, makes for a somber interlude.
The rising tension of the third movement, where Kurševs and the choir alternate ominous warnings of “weep not for me, but weep for yourselves” is followed by the majestic fourth movement, which is based on the text of the Shema Yisrael prayer, and again displays the vocal talents of Parša.
Baritone Daumants Kalniņš, perhaps best known for his vocal jazz performances, plays the role of the Prodigal Son, which is an interesting textual choice to include in this Passion, as it is otherwise unrelated to the central story. Still, as a parable taken from the Gospel of Luke, it provides a rumination on family and filial responsibility. Kalniņš’ almost theatrical performance of the arrogant and wasteful son – mockingly singing “I’ll spend my days in the drinking dens, I’ll spend my nights in the gambling dens” as he defiantly goes on his way does make for a jarring counterpoint to the central theme of the work.
The closing eighth movement – “Does that lamp still burn in my Father’s house”, based on poetry by Christina Rossetti, brings the stormy work to an almost peaceful conclusion, with the voices of the choir providing an ethereal background to the duet between Kurševs and Kalniņš. It concludes with the dreamy lament sung by Parša, with its unanswered question of “Can you hear the One who is calling”, augmented by the serene meditative singing of the choir.
The album is supplemented by a few more of Ešenvalds’ choir works, including the solemn “A Drop in the Ocean” (based on texts by Mother Theresa), and “The First Tears”, which, though not truly a sacred work, is based on the Inuit creation fable of the Raven. This expansive and tragic work, where the Raven causes the death of a whale and the girl that is the whale’s spirit, recounts the first tears cried in the world as the Raven views the results of his negligence. Though a folk story, Ešenvalds’ music and the performance of the choir give the story a resplendent, memorable poignancy, particularly in the mystical recorder performance by soloist Aleksandrs Maijers.
The final work on the album “Litany of the Heavens” is in Latvian and is based on a poem by Fricis Bārda. The work begins with a haunting recording of a man singing a Catholic Kyrie eleison chant recorded in a small church in Skaistkalne, and this recording returns throughout the work, and is balanced with the sound of water-tuned glasses to, giving it a particularly mystical quality. The strings of Sinfonietta Rīga bring an added delicacy to this reflective and contemplative work. Bārda’s poetry, about reaching for a powerful, brilliant light, is brought vividly to life with the performance and the music.
St. Luke Passion, thanks to the music of Ēriks Ešenvalds and the performances of the Latvian Radio Choir and Sinfonietta Rīga conducted by Sigvards Kļava, as well as soloists Ieva Parša, Jānis Kurševs, and Daumants Kalniņš, is a truly remarkable achievement. These sacred and spiritual works become transcendent and captivating, a reaffirmation of the compositional mastery of Ešenvalds, particularly in the sacred choral genre.
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