The Latvian struggle for independence from the Soviet Union has been dubbed the “Singing Revolution”, in which freedom fighters raised their voices in a chorus of forbidden songs.
Australian concert-goers have sampled the mesmerising choral sound of the Baltic as championed by Stephen Layton in 2010. Now Layton and his British group Polyphony introduce the young Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds, whose a cappella and accompanied choral works are accessible for their heartfelt expressions of suffering and joy.
His Passion draws on sacred texts in English and Latin, and the impossibly pure Polyphony tone wrings devastating emotional impact from every syllable. The warm plainchant opening is gradually submerged in glassy string dissonance from the Britten Sinfonia. Extreme changes of mood and atmosphere fade seamlessly into one another so that the climax’s stormy repetitions of “crucify!” lull themselves into the gentlest of prayers.
Carolyn Sampson’s haunting, at times visceral soprano solos place Passion and Resurrection alongside other contemporary classics like Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. The works on the album pay tribute to womankind, from soaring soprano lines to texts by American women poets and Mother Teresa, as well as depictions of Mary Magdalene and the stabat mater.
The Sara Teasdale setting Evening describes a “chorus of shimmering sound”, a phrase that equally applies to the disc as a whole. Two decades have passed since Latvia achieved independence but we are still hearing a “singing revolution”, with Esenvalds leading the charge.