Bonus Recording of October 2017: The Doors of Heaven

Eriks Ešenvalds: The Doors of Heaven
The First Tears, Rivers of Light, A Drop in the Ocean, Passion and Resurrection
Dr. Ethan Sperry, Portland State Chamber Choir; various instrumentalists
Naxos 8.579008 (CD). 2017. Erick Lichte, prod.; John Atkinson, Doug Tourtelot, engs. DDD. TT: 58:52
Performance ****
Sonics *****

Latvian composer Eriks Ešenvalds has been making quite a name for himself in choral music. He teeters gingerly between consonance and dissonance, and varies intimate whisperings, the strength of forces—sometimes a solo soprano over the chorus; sometimes a solo vocal quartet; sometimes exquisite, silky smooth legato singing by the entire chorus—with wise, spare use of instruments.

Rivers of Light (2014), a meditation on the Northern Lights, overlaps various Sami folksongs sung by soloists to create a stunning flow; a lush chorus completes the picture. The First Tears (2015) is based on the Inuit folk tale of the Raven and the Whale, a sort of retelling of the story of original sin; its rising gestures, frequent interjection of Native American flutes, and peaceful coda create a mini-drama. A Drop in the Ocean (2006) celebrates the life of Mother Teresa: We hear her prayers and her fears, the latter disrupting the music as screams. There's something stagily dishonest about the spoken moments, but the pianissimo ending is lovely.

Passion and Resurrection (2006) begins with a quote from and periodically returns to a motet by Crist¢bal de Morales, soon joined by dissonant strings and a full chorus that portrays both Christ and the crowd; the repeated cries of "Crucify!" are startling. A stunning soprano solo carries it aloft, and the piece ends in quiet glory.

Along with Doug Tourtelot and producer Erick Lichte, Stereophile's own John Atkinson is responsible for the flawless engineering; the organic balance of shouts and whispers is quite a feat.—Robert Levine

Axiom05's picture

Classics Today only gave the sound quality an 8, citing that the acoustic perspective was too close for his taste (David Vernier). That comment surprises me considering JA was the recording engineer.

John Atkinson's picture
Axiom05 wrote:
Classics Today only gave the sound quality an 8, siting that the acoustic perspective was too close for his taste (David Vernier).

It puzzled me, too. I think David Vernier prefers choral recordings with more of a cathedral acoustic, with the listeners in row M. What we tried to do with this recording was to move the listeners closer to the soloists than that, with the choir further away and with a believable hall acoustic.

You can see my mike set-up at

But DV did say "extraordinary performances by the Portland State Chamber Choir, whose virtuoso work here place it among the world’s finest choral ensembles," which is a tribute to music director Ethan Sperry. See

BTW, the album was the No.1 classical download on iTunes when it was released in August and No.1 on the Billboard traditional classical chart for the week of September 2. I think it is still on that chart this week, at No.4. The hi-rez version (24/88.2k) is available from HDtracks:

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

rt66indierock's picture

As a Portland State alum I'm in contact with a few fans of the Portland State chamber Choir. Six of them have raved about the album to me. Four have the iTunes version and two have the CD.

See you at RMAF.

philipjohnwright's picture

If you search on Portland State Chamber Choir.

Am looking forward to listening to this

dalethorn's picture

I bought this, with some difficulty, from Presto Classical. Given the precarious state of classical music, and the low-volume high-res sales making that even more tenuous, you'd think that the high-res vendors would be jumping through hoops to make these sales as easy as possible. Not so.

First, I installed the "Adobe Flash" utility on my Mac for the 100th time, but it still won't play the music-sample buttons that HDTracks provides. So I went to Presto Classical, who use conventional sampling buttons, and determined that I wanted to buy. And so I bought from them instead of HDTracks.

After purchase, I downloaded the ZIP file so I wouldn't have to download each track individually. The ZIP turned out to not be a conventional zip, and so it wouldn't open on my PC or MAC. The PC message was "This file requires a different version of PKZIP etc.", whereas the Mac unzip didn't have a message, it just kept doing an "archive" process that produced another copy of the zip file, alternating with a ".cpgz" file.

So, the bottom line is, either HDTracks needs usable buttons to sample their music tracks, or Presto Classical needs a downloader for their music tracks - not for me, but for the other 35 or so people who would double their sales of this album.

Axiom05's picture

Just get the free download of Stuffit Expander on your Mac. Use this to unzip the file, it will also tell you whether the downloaded file is corrupted.

dalethorn's picture

That worked. Clumsy, but it worked.

John Atkinson's picture
A few words on the mix - All of these songs tells some sort of story, some descriptive, some narrative. Unlike singing the words of a Mass, for instance, these words must stand out in front of the mix for the full emotional impact of the score to come through. This is especially true in The First Tears which tells a narrative in a complex way with intricate textures and choral effects. I made the decision that the texts which Eriks curated, crafted and brilliantly set, had to shine through and choral ensembles are not normally known for their ability to declare texts. At the same time, Eriks' writing calls for diffuse, distant and reverberant choral sounds- his writing intentionally moves to sonic worlds where we are sometimes fully embraced in the sound and sometime disoriented. My goal in the mix (and of course where we initially place the mics) was to both have one perspective of the music, but multi-perspectivism, which I think is another major aspect of these compositions.

I also believe things can't sound distant unless there are things which are close. I find this approach lends more texture to choral sound than maybe is typically heard on recording. You can hear us playing with positioning of the singers (They all turn AWAY from the microphones at the end of First Tears and the beginning of Drop in the Ocean. This plays with the focus of the sound in ways which serve the score.

Last, I have also found that the fortissimo passages in St Stephen's with complex chords can often turn into loud mush with the amount of reverberation in the room. In many of these passages, I lightly backed off the distant and close omnis so that the listener can still hear into the texture and chords.

Recording is an art, so my goal was not to present a sound from, say the perspective of the conductor, but rather lightly shift and change perspective to make each aspect of the score to sound its best. In many cases, this results in multiple perspectives, sometimes simultaneously. Hope this is interesting!

Axiom05's picture

Thanks for your comments, JA.

dalethorn's picture

Well, well. This recording really is different from the last (10, 20?) choral albums I've heard. Just two quick impressions - the first how well the choir was "tuned" in the early part of Passion part 1. Some combination of ambiance and the voices blending exceptionally well has a subtle resonance like a well-tuned string. The other is the dynamics - the very loud female voice in part 1 is extremely clean. I don't know if modern audiophile digital recording has no concerns about dynamic range, or whether this has to be carefully managed during recording, but the loudest vocal and its upper-end "air" are very impressive.

Edit: Having played this half a dozen times, I'm satisfied that the sound quality and the apparent soundstage are a 10 out of 10.

blang11's picture

I used to ride my bike past this church all the time. It was in my neighborhood in Portland. I had no idea St. Stephen Catholic Church was a used as a recording venue!