Recording of June 2020: Ešenvalds: Translations

Eriks Ešenvalds: Translations
Portland State Chamber Choir, Ethan Sperry, cond.
Naxos 8.574124 (CD, auditioned as 24/96 WAV). 2020. Erick Lichte, prod.; John Atkinson, Doug Tourtelot, engs.
Performance *****
Sonics ****½

I'll admit to a conflict of interest in choosing as Recording of the Month a work co-engineered by our very own John Atkinson. We—I, who nominated the piece, and Editor Jim Austin, who ultimately chose the winner—have both worked with John for years. And I'd never deny it was moving to sit next to him during his recent visit to Port Townsend following the release party for this new album, Translations, watching him shed tears as we listened together to the heavenly voices of the Portland State Chamber Choir singing "In paradisum" (2012), which Latvian composer Eriks Ešenvalds dedicated to his grandmother, who died the morning of the premiere.

But to dismiss this Recording of the Month selection as an inside job is to overlook some essential facts: The music is gorgeous, filled with an ethereal beauty that speaks to me of celestial realms. The singing is equal in quality to the finest I've heard on record. And the recording quality is exemplary: If Translations were available in even higher resolutions than 24/96, I would have rated it 5 stars for sonics instead of 4.5, something I very rarely do.

The album's seven compositions address "translation," which PSCC choir director Ethan Sperry describes as "the transformations that occur within us when we encounter the power of nature, legends, or the divine." Oregon Poet Laureate Paulann Peterson, whose poetry Ešenvalds set to music on two of these tracks, explains further: "Art translates mystery for us without destroying that mystery."

The opening track, "O salutaris hostia," sets text by St. Thomas Aquinas. The choir, placed far behind the pristine voices of sopranos Kate Ledington and Maeve Stier, creates a soft cushion of air underneath the women's voices as they float heavenward, a prayer of peace. As the tracks unfold, we discover Ešenvalds's unique use of dissonance and frequent changes of key or mode to express consonance, stillness, and harmony. In "Translation," Ešenvalds places a soloist in the foreground, supported by a background choir and the otherworldly shimmering sounds of handbells bowed by wooden rods.

"This is an album for those who don't necessarily like choral music," producer Erick Lichte, himself a choral conductor, explained to me by telephone. "It has so many entry points, and far more colors and acoustic dimensionality than the average choral album. Few if any composers present or past have really utilized all the compositional techniques of the past 1000 years, each in its own measure, to express specific emotional states. It's equally rare that a composer can write gorgeous and approachable melodies, marry them with dissonance, and create so many unique textures in one composition."

The title track was set down in three parts: solo quartet, choir, and then, late at night, when traffic noise had ceased, those singing handbells. The sustained tones from the tuned bells start up slowly, so they were recorded separately to ensure synchrony. On another track, "My Thoughts," the stratospheric high-F soprano conclusion was recorded separately and layered in. Because John Atkinson was not available for the first recording sessions, Tacoma's Doug Tourtelot did the engineering honors. John, who considers Translations the finest of his 40 commercially released recordings, was also responsible for the mastering, downsampling, noise shaping, and dithering of the CD version. The array of six microphones was the same that John used to such great effect on Doors of Heaven, the choir's earlier, Billboard-chart–topping recording of other works by Ešenvalds.

The dynamic range is wide. Roon rates it at 20dB, equal to both the Kleiber and Currentzis recordings of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, and to me it seems wider. On my big rig, John frequently turned the volume down on quiet passages in anticipation of the louder passages to follow. Ear-gear–loving Herb Reichert finds the quietest passages so soft that he recommends closed-backed headphones to hear them clearly.

Save for the remarkable, ear-opening "Legend of the Walled-in Woman" (2005), a shifting, 11-minute-45-second tour-de-force that combines an old Albanian folk song with another from the 20th century, just about everything on Translations is slow. It wasn't meant to be that way: Plans to include a new commission were scrapped because Ešenvalds couldn't finish it in time. No matter: It works well as it is, although, given the recording's surfeit of similarly paced sweetness, its aesthetically elevated marriage of musical and engineering mastery is best savored a little at a time, like fine wine or, in places where it's legal, potent cannabis.—Jason Victor Serinus

John Atkinson auditions the Translations CD in Jason’s listening room.

COMMENTS
jimtavegia's picture

the 2496 as downloads?

Jim Austin's picture
I added a link to the Presto Classical site. Enjoy; it's superb. Jim Austin, Editor Stereophile
John Atkinson's picture
jimtavegia wrote:
the 2496 as downloads?

Presto Music has it available for download:

https://www.prestomusic.com/classical/products/8754601--riks-esenvalds-translations

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

jimtavegia's picture

John, Beautiful music, as always. What we all need right now...peace and serenity.

jimtavegia's picture

This is the reason for high resolution. One of the hardest things to do with choral work is to allow for the mass voices to be understood as often if the group is not "together" vocally it is hard to understand the lyrics. This is the benefit of 2496 and higher, and also it takes great engineering and science behind microphone placement to insure that all of this comes together. The reverb tail decay is very long so clarity of high resolution allows for all of this to work. Great work all around. On a great system or a great set of headphones this is magic.

John Atkinson's picture
jimtavegia wrote:
Great work all around. On a great system or a great set of headphones this is magic.

Thanks Jim.

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

Bogolu Haranath's picture

If we paint the CD with a green sharpie at the edges, that CD will sound just as good as the Hi-Res ....... Just kidding ....... Just kidding :-) .......

jimtavegia's picture

when listening to high resolution I do wear green socks and green underwear. Probably too much information there. (Insert Sam Tellig's evil laugh here.)

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Hopefully, you didn't try the Armor All :-) ........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

No wine or cannabis in that photo :-) .......

John Atkinson's picture
Bogolu Haranath wrote:
No wine or cannabis in that photo :-)

Much wine had been imbibed the night before! And Jason's system sounded superb!

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

Bogolu Haranath's picture

If JVS offers free wine and cannabis, many of us will declare that the JVS' audio system sounds superb, for sure :-) ......

TJ's picture

Listening to it now on Qobuz. Thank you for recommending and congrats to all involved!

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

...that you're all taking a listen. This and John's previous recording with this choir are superb.

jason

low2midhifi's picture

I am glad that Naxos got a good review here, and that the label continues to release new recordings. Here is another recent and excellent recording for the interested. There is a short video with remarks from the artist:

https://www.naxos.com/feature/Giltburg-Rachmaninov-24-Preludes.asp

jimtavegia's picture

A superb place for one to go just starting a Classical Music Collection and great sound to boot.

Long-time listener's picture

"On my big rig, John frequently turned the volume down on quiet passages in anticipation of the louder passages to follow. Ear-gear–loving Herb Reichert finds the quietest passages so soft that he recommends closed-backed headphones to hear them clearly."

So. I have to keep adjusting the volume to hear the quiet parts and then to keep the loud parts from blasting me out of my chair. Or, I have to get closed-back headphones. Could I have some dynamic range compression please? I HATE always having to adjust the volume. But here we go again: Purists delighting in how accurate and perfect the dynamic range is -- and holding their ears because the loud parts are too loud. Sheesh.

Given how sophisticated digital equipment is today, couldn't dynamic range be adjustable to suit the listener? Why shouldn't it be? Why should I be forced to put up with dynamic range that is too wide for listening comfort or my equipment or my apartment? It's the same story -- the purists want it, and they won't let you have compressed dynamics, or tone controls, even if it makes home listening better.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

There are several hardware and software programs available on the market at various prices ...... They have both dynamic range compressors and dynamic range limiters ....... Dolby is one of them ....... Dolby Atmos for headphones has those cababilies built-in :-) .......

jimtavegia's picture

I do wish that most audiophiles would take advantage off the audio software available and with downloads you can make the music sound, pretty much, anyway you want. I have always had great success with Sony SoundForge Audio Studio, now up to version 14. I tend to prefer version 12 and have version in single digits still.

You could then take individual tracks and compress or enhance anyway you like, all for $59 off the Magix website who now owns Sony Software. I like version 12 as it also has a spectral display, a vector display, and full EQ display that a can go past 20KHz for high Rez files if you wish. Fully adjustable compressor is there for you do deal with files as you wish and then save them. Version 14 does have an oscilloscope to view the files if that helps.

Just a suggestion.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Also, for headphones, Sonarworks and now, Dirac can do some of these sound modifications, for example :-) .......

Long-time listener's picture

Mr. Atkinson says in his interview that LPs make listening special by providing a ritual that enhances enjoyment -- taking the LP out of its sleeve, and enjoying the large artwork and album notes. I suggest that constantly adjusting the volume on CDs because the dynamic range is too large for comfortable home listening can be his new "ritual." Maybe that will make listening to digital music equally special.

jimtavegia's picture

The lathe operator will have his work cut out for him.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Mahler Symphony No.9 is one example of high dynamic range music :-) .......

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