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Ešenvalds - Northern Lights - The Oldie

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What is remarkable, however, is the quality and amount of sacred music that is currently being written in this allegedly post-Christian age.  Take the work of the 37-year old Latvian composer Eriks Ešenvalds.  It helps that his new Hyperion disc Northern Lights has been made in close co-operation with the incomparable choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, and music director Stephen Layton.  Their work alone is worth the price of the disc.  Add in Ešenvalds’s contribution and the result is a collection that in terms of imagination and aural allure is beyond anything I have heard since the halcyon age of the young Benjamin Britten.

Meditative music can be uduly comatose (Górecki has a lot to answer for) but Ešenvalds is too enamoured of the spirit of the dance to let that happen.  Nor do the pieces he writes outstay their welcome.  Take the ‘Trinity Te Deum’, written for the inauguration of a new Master of Trinity in 2012.  It’s a terrific piece, with a roistering opening for choir, trumpets, trombones, timpani, harp and organ.  What is unforgettable, however, is the gentle dance – Auden would have called it a ‘stately bransle’ – which takes up the idea of God being made man.

The collection is full of small gems.  They include Ešenvalds’s already popular ‘O salutaris’ for two sopranos and choir and a sublime setting of ‘Amazing Grace’ which no football crowd could ever sing but which confers on John Newton’s verses a much-needed new lease of life.

Elsewhere Ešenvalds makes spell-binding use of the sound of chimes and tuned wine glasses, as in the eponymous ‘Nothern Lights’, an evocation of the aurora borealis that mixes dance and meditation with more than a hint of what it might be like to hear the music of the spheres.

Three pieces are settings of the American poet Sara Teasdale who killed herself in 1933 at the age of 48.  ‘Day you have bruised and beaten me down’ is the terrifying opening line of ‘The new moon’.  Yet as the moon rises, the world dissolves into acquiescent greys, leaving the final lines – ‘Oh who could be bitter and want to die/When maiden moon wakes up the sky’ – quitely encircled by those same trademark sonoroties of chimes and tuned wine glasses.

Richard Osborne

Ešenvalds - Northern Lights
Hyperion Records CDA68083