Perhaps one of the most memorable moments of the closing concert of the 2013 Latvian Song Festival was the song “Dvēseles dziesma”.
With its patriotic words by poet Anita Kārkliņa put to music in such a way that the tens of thousands of spectators were emotionally affected and moved, this final song in the ‘official’ part of the concert brought forth a wave of emotion through both singers and listeners alike. The composer responsible for this unforgettable moment? Ēriks Ešenvalds.
Ešenvalds, who has reaffirmed his compositional skills time and again in many areas of music, arguably finds his greatest artistic successes in the field of choir music. From epics like “Légende de la femme emmurée”, to sacred works like “Passion and Resurrection”, to truly Latvian works such as the aforementioned “Dvēseles dziesma”, Ešenvalds has shown quite the talent for bringing together music, text, and singers to create choir works of great emotion, passion, depth and power.
Recognizing the formidable choir compositional talents of this composer, the State Choir Latvia (of whom, perhaps not coincidentally, Ešenvalds is a former singer), led by another Latvian choir music visionary, conductor Māris Sirmais, undertook the task of recording of a number of Ešēnvalds’ more serious choir works, and released the CD At the Foot of the Sky in 2013.
The CD covers choral works written over the course of the last five years. Sparsely instrumented, these works are mostly secular works, and display a range of influences and styles, from classical styles to more modern approaches.
Many of Ešenvalds’ choir pieces have set the words of poet Sara Teasdale to music, and the work “Stars” is one of the many successful efforts. With its haunting, ethereal accompaniment provided by tuned glasses, Teasdale’s words about ‘a heaven full of stars’ become even more cosmic in nature, even magical.
First performed by the youth choir Kamēr…, ”Tāls ceļš” (originally released on the Mīlas madrigāli album), with words by Paulīna Bārda (written after the death of her husband, famed Latvian poet Fricis Bārda), is one of Ešenvalds’ most popular recent choir pieces. At first, it would appear to be a simple, sweet love song, however, in Ešenvalds’ hands, the lyrical song becomes a far more spiritual work, with an otherworldly block flute conclusion, played by Andis Klučnieks.
As the title of the album would indicate, the overarching theme of all these works is the sky – both in the literal sense, with songs about the various phenomena that appear in the sky, as well as the dreams that are inspired by the heavens. The mystical side of the heavens is displayed in the text to “Seneca’s Zodiac”, which contains fragments from the Chorus of Thyestes by Seneca the Younger. From its ominous opening, foretelling the end of the world – “Into one abyss shall fall the throng of gods”, the story continues with all the elements from the Zodiac calendar. The performance also features Ešenvalds himself playing the piano, adding another layer of mysticism to this engrossing journey through astrology.
The sacred aspect of the sky appears in the final work on the CD – “In Paradisum”, with text taken from the Requiem Mass. Beginning with the achingly melancholic string performances of Pēteris Trasūns on viola and Pēteris Ozoliņš on cello, this epic work about death and eternal rest carries an emotional weight and spiritual depth that is at once both powerful and subdued. The soprano solo by Sanita Sinkēviča adds to the imagery of angels awaiting the entrance of a soul into paradise.
The CD booklet features a lengthy essay on Ešenvalds and the works on the disc by British composer Gabriel Jackson (whose own works were performed by the State Choir Latvia on the recording A Ship with Unfurled Sails), as well as biographies of the composer and the choir, in both Latvian and English.
The past ten years have revealed that Ēriks Ešenvalds is one of the premier Latvian choir music composers. With a strong sense of melody, lyricism and the dramatic, the composer, via the voice of the choir, brings new colors and textures to the interpretations of these texts. In the hands of a premier choir such as the State Choir Latvia, and under the baton of Māris Sirmais, these works become almost transcendent, illuminating the majesty and mysticism of the sky, at once beautiful and reverent. At the Foot of the Sky is a truly captivating collection of some of Ešenvalds’ best choral work.
At the Foot of the Sky
State Choir Latvia
1. Tāls ceļš
2. Northern Lights
4. Seneca’s Zodiac
6. Sun Dogs I: The Witnesses
7. Sun Dogs II: The Beauty of This Miracle
8. In Paradisium
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