Esenvalds: Translations. (CD Review)

Ethan Sperry, Portland State Chamber Choir; Charles Noble, viola (7); Marilyn de Oliveira, cello (7); David Walters, singing handbells (3); Joel Bluestone, vibraphone, glockenspiel, chimes (5); Florian Conzetti, vibraphone, suspended cymbal, bass drum (5). Naxos 8.574124.

By Karl W. Nehring

Program (all compositions by Eriks Esenvalds): 1. O salutaris hostia (2009) (Text: St. Thomas Aquinas, 1224/25-1274); 2. The Heavens' Flock (2014) (Text: Paulann Petersen, b 1942); 3. Translation (2016) (Text: Paulann Petersen); 4. My Thoughts (2019) (Text: Saint Silouan the Athonite, 1866-1938); 5. Vineta; (Text: Wilhelm Muller, 1794-1827); 6. The Legend of the Walled-in Woman (2009) (Text: Albanian folk song and Vendit Tem ["My Land"] by Martin Camaj 1925-1992, English translation by R. Eksie, 1950-2017); 7. In paradisum (2012) (Text: Catholic Liturgy).

A few weeks ago, I enthusiastically recommended a disc of indescribably beautiful choral music (The Suspended Harp of Babel) by the virtually unknown late Estonian composer Cyrillus Kreek. Sticking with indescribably beautiful choral music by Baltic composers, this time around I am recommending a newly released recording by the better-known (but still hardly a household name) young Latvian composer, Eriks Esenvalds (b. 1977).

Eriks Esenvalds
Conductor Ethan Sperry (b. 1971) has provided extensive liner notes that provide great insight into the music. Of the overall scope and theme of the program, he writes, "This album features seven selections on the idea of 'translation' or the transformations that occur within us when we encounter the power of nature (Translation and The Heavens' Flock}, legends (The Legend of the Walled-in Woman and Vineta), or the divine (O salutaris hostia, My Thoughts, and in paradisum). Oregon Poet Laureate Paulann Petersen, whose poetry is set on two tracks of this album, stated: 'Art is translation. Art translates the ineffable into what we can see and hear, what we can experience, what touches us. Art translates mystery for us without destroying that mystery. As translation, art truly is a vehicle for transformation. Art enters and transforms us: lucky, lucky us.'"

As the album opens, we hear a soaring soprano voice hovering above the sound of the choir. The sound quality is pure and natural, making us feel as though we are being ushered into a sacred space of beauty and rest. The soft "amen" at the end is at once resigned and triumphant (Sperry notes that after more than "three minutes of continuous staggered breathing, the choir gets one communal breath before the final, 'Amen'."). The following piece, The Heavens' Flock, finds the male voices in the choir gaining more prominence. There is an echoing effect toward the end that is simply gorgeous. Moving on to the third selection, Translation, the overall arrangement shifts again, with male and female solo voices singing the lyrics above a wordless accompaniment by the choir. As the piece progresses, an uncredited organist provides some soft background playing, the piece ending quietly with a fade from the organ and background voices.

Ethan Sperry
Whereas the first three cuts were all relatively brief, the final four are all longer, beginning with My Thoughts, which Sperry explains "is a setting of the preface of Saint Silouan the Athonite's treatise My Soul Is Crying to the Whole World. While the book itself is a collection of prayers and beliefs, the preface concerns the struggle of attempting to take divine perfection and write it down in words." It starts with both male and female choral voices, then at about the 3.5-minute mark female voices take over for a short time until the rest of the choir comes back in. The choir is briefly augmented by some deep pedal notes from the organ (a good workout for your woofers). Near the end there is an emphatic choral climax, a pause, and then a return from the choir before a fade into silence as this remarkable composition concludes.

The next track, Vineta, is the most overtly expressive composition on the album in both musical and sonic terms. Sperry explains that "Vineta is a legendary city consumed by the Baltic Sea because of its citizens' hedonistic tendencies, and whose church bells still ring from beneath the surface of the waters calling sailors to their deaths." The piece opens with bells and chimes accompanying the choir. A couple of minutes in, there are some deep organ pedal notes. Later, the bells return, with the choir contributing some wordless vocals. As the piece develops, the choir starts singing lyrics again. There are more bells, more notes from the organ, plenty of marvelous sounds to give your audio system a thorough workout. The organ fades, the bells come back, the choir then takes over, with the percussion instruments joining back in before the fade at the end. That is a sadly inelegant bare-bones account of what is a truly remarkable, complex, stunning composition.

Portland State Chamber Choir
The penultimate piece on the album, Legend of the Walled-In Woman, is the most "modern-sounding" composition, at times a bit angular and unusual, but to these ears at least, never off-putting. It begins with an intoning male voice that is then joined by the choir. As the composition unfolds, there are echoing effects, wordless wonders, sounds wild and eerie and forbidding. Listening to this piece, you can hear troubled minds, haunted places of the heart, deep conflict, fear, but all stemming from a tale (the liner notes provide some welcome background information) compellingly portrayed in sonic splendor. But as if to remind us that there is always hope shining brightly before us, the program ends on a note of consolation, in paradisum, in a beautiful arrangement with voices and strings. The heart, mind, and soul of the listener are offered peace and repose, balm in Gilead for these turbulent, troubled times.

Not only is the program outstanding, but so is the production. Former Stereophile editor John Atkinson played a key role in the recording process. In fact, there is an insightful discussion of how the album was engineered by Jason Serinus in that magazine's June 2020 issue. It is well worth perusing to gain more insight into the recording process, which involves both science and art. Although I certainly stand guilty of casting some aspersions at Stereophile over the years, I have always had great respect for Mr. Atkinson. In my admittedly few correspondences with him, he has always been a true gentleman, and his genuine love for and appreciation of music -- especially our beloved British classical music -- has always been exemplary. Bravo, John!

The liner notes by conductor Sperry are helpful, lyrics are included, and the recorded program is nearly 70 minutes long. The musicians, engineers, production staff, and the folks at Naxos have all done themselves proud with this fine release.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa