Latvian Ēriks Ešenvalds is one of the latest group of non-British composers to be lionised by that most British of establishments, the Oxbridge choral scene. From 2011 to 2013 he was Fellow Commoner in the Creative Arts at Trinity College, Cambridge where he collaborated extensively with the choir. Its director, Stephen Layton perceptively describes Ešenvalds as “a compositional chameleon”. Therein lies a dilemma.
Undoubtedly greatly talented and adept at bringing alive all manner of different texts, Ešenvalds’ music left me wondering where his real voice lay. His Trinity Te Deum is as grand as any other essay in that genre, while his Merton College Service is served up in attractive homophony spiced with cluster chords, but which leaves the listener thinking it could have been composed any time in the last half-century. O Salutaris Hostia starts promisingly with echoes of MacMillan but becomes cloyingly saccharine. Amazing Grace is given a treatment that would make Hollywood envious.
Moving away from church music Ešenvalds becomes more original and individual. Northern Lights and his two settings of Sara Teasdale, The New Moon and Stars, suggest there is salvation beyond conformism. Needless to say, Ešenvalds has the best possible advocates in Layton and his superb choir, who combine technical excellence with true passion. All we need now is for the real Ešenvalds to stand up.