Friday 22 May 2020

Essential listening for anyone interested in Estonian music: Vox Clamantis' profoundly beautiful account of the music of Cyrillus Kreek, 'The suspended harp of Babel'

The suspended harp of Babel;
Cyrillus Kreek The suspended harp of Babel; Vox Clamantis, Jaan-Eik Tulve, Anna-Liisa Eller, Angela Ambrosini, Marco Ambrosini; ECM Records

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 May 2020 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Music at once familiar and unfamiliar, the Estonian choir explores the sacred music of one of the founders of the Estonian choral tradition

To listen to the choral pieces on this disc is to hear music which is somehow familiar. The name of the composer Cyrillus Kreek may well be unfamiliar, but his use of Estonian folk-song as material and his way of treating it musically has had great influence in Estonia. To listen to this music is to hear an essential component of the DNA of much 20th century and contemporary Estonian music. The Suspended Harp of Babel from ECM Records features Vox Clamantis and Jaan-Eik Tulve (conductor), Marco Ambrosini and Angela Ambrosini (nyckleharpa), Anna-Liisa Eller (kannel) in four of Kreek's psalm settings, a selection of his arrangements of Estonia folk-hymns, and settings of verses from the Orthodox liturgy.

Estonian folk-music is threaded through Kreek's work, alongside choral music, the two indissolubly intertwined; Kreek would notate nearly 1300 folk songs, both sacred and secular, and would create choral arrangements of around three quarters of these, providing a fundamental component in the make-up of Estonian choirs. [see my article on Cyrillus Kreek for more background]. Whilst in Psalms of David (1923), the music is his own, in Sacred Folk Songs consists of arrangements of existing Estonian folk-material, but there is a continuum between the two and Kreek's own music has all its elements based on folk material, but used in a sophisticated and sympathetic way. To listen to Kreek's music is to hear his influence on Veljo Tormis and Arvo Part, but it is also to hear that Kreek trained in St Petersburg Conservatory (1908-1916) at a time when Rachmaninov's All Night Vigil (Vespers) was premiered. But Kreek's ear for colour, and his way with his material means that he creates his own distinctive world.

Cyrillus Kreek
Cyrillus Kreek
On this disc, the 14-voice Estonian choir Vox Clamantis and its conductor Jaan-Eik Tulve perform four of Cyrillus Kreek's psalm settings, Psalms 104, 123 and 141 from 1923 and Psalm 137 from 1938, which set Estonian texts from the country's Lutheran tradition. Kreek's music is highly responsive to the music of the Estonian language (it is a shame that the booklet includes translations but not the original texts), and you feel that it is the treatment of the language which is a major feature of this music. These were not liturgical pieces, Kreek abbreviates the longer psalms, but music intended for the concert hall. And these are not just folk pastiches, Kreek has a sophisticated ear for colour, with an imaginative use of texture, all of which is beautifully captured by the singers [I was lucky enough to hear them live in some of Kreek's music at the 2017 Estonian Music Days, see my review].

Another thread running through the disc is Kreek's arrangements of Estonian folk-hymns. We hear five of these Whilst great is our poverty, From heaven above the earth I come, Awake my heart, Do the birds worry, and He who lets God prevail, where the performances combine voice with nyckelharpa (a traditional Swedish keyed fiddle) and kannel (an Estonian zither), here played by Marco and Angela Ambrosini, and Anna-Liisa Eller.  Some of the instrumental preludes and interludes were created by Marco Ambrosini based on Kreek's material.

All five of the folk-hymns derive from within fifty kilometres of Haapsalu where Kreek was teaching, and date from the period 1916-1919. The date is, perhaps, significant, as in 1918 Estonia declared itself independent. And in the Baltic countries, the collecting and recording of folk music played an important role in the creation of a national identity, in parallel to the urge to record folk traditions, and create folk museums (plans for Tallinn's open air museum were first discussed in 1913, in emulation of existing Scandinavian open air museums).

In these arrangements, Kreek again uses a sophisticated mixture of textures, and in the present versions the instruments sometimes accompany and sometimes take over. The sound of the nyckelharpa and the kannel are both very evocative, and these arrangements bring out the essential qualities of Estonian folk-tradition which overlays the original Lutheran chorale-inspired hymns.

But Estonia has more than one Christian tradition, and the Orthodox church plays an important role. Here we hear two of Kreek's pieces based on psalm texts translated into Estonian from the Orthodox liturgy, Proemial Psalm (Psalm 104), and Praise the name of the Lord (Psalm 135/136). We hear Psalm 104 as part of a sound-collage which includes Jacob's Dream, an example of Estonian runic song, an ancient tradition common to Estonia and Finland. Whilst some of the music is straight forward and could be used liturgically, much goes a long way towards Kreek's other psalms which were intended as concert music.

The final work on the disc is completely fascinating, another sound collage it moves between Kreek's arrangement of a folk-hymn, O Jesus, thy pain and Guillaume de Machaut's virelai, Dame, vostre doulz viaire. Here, Paul Griffiths' booklet note is frustratingly vague, and I am unsure whether the combination of the two was done by Kreek, or whether it is an imaginative coupling by Jaan-Eik Tulve. But whatever, it is remarkable who the two musics relate to each other.

Vox CLamantis
There isn't a lot of Cyrillus Kreek on disc, though the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir has recorded some of this repertoire. Vox Clamantis is a relatively small group with a repertoire which varys from Hildegard of Bingen and Renaissance right through to contemporary music. The singers contribute a number of solo voices in the psalms as well as singing in the ensemble, and throughout I was impressed by the fine degree of control, and the sense of colour in the performances. But there is something else as well, a naturalness which speaks of the music's being and essential part of the singers' DNA. The resulting disc is a profoundly beautiful and rather moving experience, with Tulve having created a striking and satisfying programme out of the various strands of material. Essential listening for anyone interested in 20th century and contemporary Estonian music.

The Suspended Harp of Babel
Cyrillus Kreek (1889-1962) - The sun shall not smite thee (Psalm121) [3:05]
arr. Cyrillus Kreek - Whilst great is our poverty [5:17]
Cyrillus Kreek - Jacob's Dream/Proemial Psalm (Psalm 104) [11:55]
arr. Cyrillus Kreek - From heaven above to earth I come [5:56]
Cyrillus Kreek - Bless the Lord, my soul (Psalm 104) [2:25]
arr. Cyrillus Kreek - Awake my heart [6:53]
Cyrillus Kreek - Praise the name of the Lord (Psalm 135/136) [2:21]
arr. Cyrillus Kreek - Do the birds worry? [5:06]
Cyrillus Kreek - Lord, I cry unto thee (Psalm 141) [2:27]
arr. Cyrillus Kreek - He who lets God prevail [3:55]
Cyrillus Kreek - By the rivers of Babylon (Psalm 137) [5:36]
Traditional - The last dance [2:39]
Cyrillus Kreek - O Jesus, Thy Pain / Guillaume de Machaut - Dame, vostre doulz viaire [12:06]
Vox Clamantis
Jaan-Eik Tulve (conductor)
Marco Ambrosini (nyckelharpa)
Angela Ambrosini (nyckelharpa)
Anna-Liisa Eller (kannel)
Recorded April 2018, Transfiguration Church, Tallinn, Estonia
ECM 2620 1CD

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