Sunday, 17 February 2013

Latvia VII: Ēriks Ešenvalds, again

Well, I've sought out more music by the contemporary Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds in an attempt to gain a broader perspective on his music. I'm very glad I listened -thanks to the promptings of a reader.

Legend of the Walled-in Woman from 2005 is the place to start. The legend is an Albanian one, telling of how two brothers tricked a third into bringing about the death of his wife following a prediction by their mother that their newly-build castle would be safe from invaders if one of them sacrificed a wife. The piece's starting and finishing point is that Albanian folk song and the sounds of its phrases echo over rich drone-like accompaniments at the start. It's hypnotic. The central section gives the lie to any assumption that Ēriks is a simple, easy-to-pigeonhole composer. Here the music begins to move in a way that reminds me rather of Ligeti's Lux aeterna, demonstrating his understanding of avant-garde vocal writing and clustered harmonies, while remaining sumptuously melodically - as if those melodies are echoing in a long and deep memory. The soprano solo (later duet) as we move towards the closing section floats hauntingly. It's a rich and very beautiful piece that packs a considerable emotional punch and must he heard. (For a live performance you might also want to try this).

I was also bowled over by Aizej, lietiņ ('Go Away, Rain!') - a piece for mixed choir, this time based on Latvian folk music.and including an instrumental ensemble which consists of a pair of kokles (Latvian zither-like instruments), reed pipe, accordian and drums. The 'seeing' element is not an incidental one in Go Away, Rain! as Ēriks Ešenvalds encourages movement among the singers as the work reaches its remarkable climax where, drawing on the avant-garde again, a passage of aleatory writing where modal phrases are repeated in an extraordinary polyphony - a joyous, ecstatic clamour - out of which emerges a jubilant-sounding hymn. Before we reach that thrilling point, we've heard the magic solo soprano (in duet with the reed pipe) of the opening and the chorus stirring entry behind her. The accordion launches the delightful second section, a punch-the-air passage with a great tune. Janáček's Glagotic Mass springs to my mind here. And I can think of no higher compliment than that. (For another take on this enchanting piece, please try this).

As you have (hopefully) seen, Ēriks Ešenvalds is a composer capable of moving crowds (in more ways than one). Another remarkable piece of his is Sanākam, Saskanam. A solo singer with violin, mixed choir and ensemble gather together (the choir in potentially infinite numbers!) and so it begins. The process behind it could be said to be minimalist, in that a phrase is set in motion and is repeated with minimum development against a unchallenging harmonic oscillation between two harmonies. The effect, however, is maximalist. Please bear with me as I make a comparison to Ravel's Bolero. The Ravel is one of the most artful masterpieces in music, despite its composer's modesty about it and (some of) the critics' subsequent sniffiness. It is essentially one long crescendo, repeating and repeating but ever subtly changing its colour as it does so. The tension it builds is physical in its impact and when the repetition and the harmonic stasis is suddenly heaved into a new key the effect is electrifying. Ravel's piece then hurtles towards collapse. Something similar is happening with Sanākam, Saskanam - except that there is no catastrophe at the end. Far from it. I won't spoil the surprise though. Please listen for yourself and get caught up in the intoxicating event. The meaning of the title eludes me but its sock-it-to-'em effect doesn't! Joy!!

Another captivating piece by our man is Stars, a gorgeous setting of a poem by the American lyric poet Sara Teasdale. The choir project the readily-enjoyable, deliciously-blurred melodic lines and their richly-packed harmonies (like amplified Poulenc) whilst around them, like the stars in the night sky above us, tuned glasses and Tibetan singing bowls cast the spell of eternity - the effect of the latter, though achieved through ancient instruments, is strange, electronic-sounding even.

The illusion of electronics caught me out with A Drop in the Ocean. I assumed the choir were singing against a backdrop of pre-recorded electronic music. Far from it. That strange, whale-like/Northern Lights-like backdrop is achieved by human beings, whistling and breathing. Magically. The modernist effects, which also include counterpointing speech-like and song-like writing, are employed without a trace of pretentiousness and the music's rich tonality is worthy of Britten. This is warm, melodically appealing and (at times) intensely dramatic music based on the words of Albania's most-beloved daughter (as far as the rest of the world is concerned) Mother Teresa. Bless her.

As I've re-listened (and re-listened, etc), the utter magic (and genius) of  Ēriks's unaccompanied O salutaris hostia has hit me more and more. In another of my (probably) unlikely (but spot on!) comparisons, this is  music of Fauré-like intimacy and sensuousness. We are so attuned to the pessimistic, cynical mood of our age that we (I?) perhaps fail to appreciate that contemporary music can hit the heights that music of the past hit so lastingly. This piece will last. It has very little of the avant-garde about it (hence my comments in that earlier post of mine) but, as we care so little (he says optimistically) about ideological positioning these days, I say "Meh!" to that. This is one of the most beautiful pieces ever written.

Talking of Fauré, whose heart-ingrained Requiem is one of music's great treasures, Ēriks Ešenvalds has composed an In Paradisum that partakes of that piece's - and its equivalent movement's - consoling spirit. A choral piece with what in Baroque music would be term obbligato parts for cello and violin. The violin's part (which. at times, draws on modernist playing techniques) has something of the 'bird of paradise' about it. It's another example of the composer drawing on avant-garde techniques for immediately engaging purposes. Not many can pull that off...

...and for a purely instrumental of that, why not try his Eskiz ('Sketch') for violin and piano?

I suspect I've still only just scratched the surface of Ēriks Ešenvalds's music. Plus he's still younger than me (drat him!) and there's bound to be much more magic to come.

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