Ešenvalds’ Doors Of Heaven

Review by: David Vernier


Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 8

This is a recording that makes me wish I had scores at hand while listening. These four works, written by Latvian composer Eriks Ešenvalds between 2006 and 2015, are not so innovative or original as they are successful integrations of techniques–chord clusters, extravagant dissonances, expansive textures, generous employment of voices and voicings, and sheer audaciousness in dramatic realization–and if there are definining characteristics of 21st century choral music, these works should be included in the discussion.

To make a contemporary comparison, Arvo Pärt creates a distinctive “sonic atmosphere” in most of his works, and so does Ešenvalds, but these creations are from two completely different worlds, Pärt’s inhabiting one where melodic/harmonic movement is slow, organic, morphogenetic, and Ešenvalds’ is centered in an environment more dynamic, expansive, volatile, one in which music is text and text is music. And on this last point, where many of today’s composers use techniques such as dissonance, clusters, and non-vocal sounds as mere effects or expressive “flavoring”, Ešenvalds employs such devices–along with traditional melodic and harmonic structures–as carefully thought out realizations of the dramatic elements inherent in the text. Thus, what we hear impresses as essential, never contrived.

What does seem a bit contrived, however, are the several long soprano solos in the program’s concluding–and most substantial–work, Passion and Resurrection, from 2006. As the composer’s own, and ingeniously constructed, setting of the biblical Passion story, for soprano, vocal quartet, choir, and string orchestra, it makes some profound and affecting musical and dramatic points, but those solos–gorgeously sung by soprano Hannah Consenz–seem to meander, marked occasionally with bits of chromaticism that just sound gratuitous.

But that’s a small criticism in the context of mostly exceptional music–and extraordinary performances by the Portland State Chamber Choir, whose virtuoso work here–including several outstanding solos in addition to the one mentioned above–place it among the world’s finest choral ensembles. The acoustic perspective is too “close” for my taste, but some listeners may prefer it. If you have yet to experience the work of this fascinating composer or of this excellent choir, here is the place to start–an altogether enlightening and enjoyable release.

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Recording Details:

Album Title: The Doors of Heaven
    The First Tears (2015); Rivers of Light (2014); A Drop in the Ocean (2006); Passion and Resurrection (2006)

    Portland State Chamber Choir, Ethan Sperry

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