Passion according to St Luke

for soloists, mixed choir, and chamber orchestra

This work for mixed choir and symphony orchestra is divided into eight untitled contrasting movements. The music is sumptuous, rich, and powerful, with heroic, picturesque, passionate, and ethereal elements.

The Passion opens with terrifying, powerful cries ‘Crucify him, away with him!’ by the entire choir. The second movement (Misterioso) is a free-flowing, meditative reflection on Jesus being a carpenter’s son. The third (Espressivo) portrays people following Jesus by use of short repeated staccato archi chords resembling the followers’ footsteps. The fourth (Adagio) contains a Hebrew melody sung by a mezzo soprano — Jesus’s mother saying a prayer over her sleeping son. Her voice soars over the long sustained low chords, with shimmering strings in high registers. The fifth movement (Espressivo) begins with subdued tones and a sense of suspended reality, providing a stark contrast to the fearsome depiction of the nails being driven into the flesh of the one on the cross. After the untitled sixth movement, whose narrative concentrates on a father with two sons, one of whom is dreaming about going into a city and living a life of earthly pleasures, the seventh movement begins with inhalations and exhalations of the choir and the menacing sounds of the tamburo militare. The following section narrates the tale of Jesus calming the storm on the sea, with a number of word painting devices — the sailing of the boat is depicted by a beautiful triplet accompaniment on the harp; the storm in agitated triplets in the accompaniment and whirling chromatic vocal lines, with mournful, melismatic writing on the word ‘perish’. The Passion concludes with a light and serene Cantabile movement, with melodic writing moving mostly by tone and semitone, with no large leaps, and with a peaceful harp accompaniment throughout.

— from notes by Anastasia Belina-Johnson © 2016

Photo: Recording session for St Luke Passion / Sacred Works (Ondine 2016) at St John’s Lutheran Church, Riga on 5–7 May 2015 (© Jānis Porietis).

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Latvian Radio Choir
Soloists (Mez, T, Bar), Choir (SSAATTBB), chamber orchestra
Gospel of Luke, Catholic and Byzantine church prayers, Shema Yisrael, poetry by James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938) and Christina Rossetti (1830–1894)
8 movements
30 min
Latvian Radio Choir, Sinfonietta Riga, conductor Sigvards Kļava, and soloists Ieva Parša (mezzo-soprano), Jānis Kurševs (tenor), Daumants Kalniņš (baritone) in Riga Cathedral on 4 April 2014
Latvian Radio ChoirSt Luke Passion / Sacred Works

Ešenvalds’s St Luke Passion (2014) plunges the listener straight into the midst of the Crucifixion scene, rushing strings underlying the terrible urgency of the crowd’s shouts of ‘Crucify him!’. It’s an unusual and highly effective beginning, and I can say that it is unlike any other setting of the Passion with which I am familiar. Ešenvalds has a highly individual and striking melodic style, and there are wonderfully memorable moments for all three soloists (reflective passages include the second section and the fourth, a Middle Eastern-inflected setting of the Shema Yisrael for the smoky timbre of mezzo Ieva Parša) to offset the predominantly dramatic tone of the work. As well as the narrative from St Luke’s Gospel and the Shema Yisrael, Ešenvalds makes use of other texts, including prayers, and poetry by James Weldon Johnson and Christina Rossetti. Words by Rossetti are used for the final section, and I find this the least satisfactory; it seems to descend into a rather forced Romantic nostalgia, though the very final moments, fading away to silence, are very impressive. (Ivan Moody)