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Cyrillus KREEK [1889-1962)
The Suspended Harp of Babel
Vox Clamantis/Jaan-Eik Tulve
Marco Ambrosini, Angela Ambrosini (nyckelharpa)
Anne-Liisa Eller (kannel)
rec. 2018, Transfiguration Church, Tallinn, Estonia
Insert note and texts provided in English only
ECM NEW SERIES 2620 [69:47]

In a world where critics’ opinions were unquestioned and followed to the letter, this review would require only three words: ‘Buy this disc.’ In the real world, however, a little description is required.

Cyrillus Kreek was born in 1889, close to the western coast of Estonia. In 1908 he entered the conservatoire in St Petersburg, where he studied trombone and composition. Following this, he returned to Estonia, setting himself up in the town of Haapsalu, close to the village of his birth, where he lived for the rest of his life. He earned his living as a teacher, firstly in Haapsalu and later in the conservatoire in Tallinn, the Estonian capital.

This disc from the superb Estonian vocal ensemble, Vox Clamantis, concentrates on one aspect of Kreek’s musical activity, his interest in Estonian folk music. He went into the field and collected songs and melodies, his modern approach involving the use of a phonograph. His aim was, at least in part, to ensure that this music did not die out. In this he was more successful than those, Vaughan Williams, for example, who did the same thing in the British Isles. Estonian musicians have retained a close link with their own traditional music, as have those of neighbouring countries, Latvia and Lithuania. The magnificent Latvian Radio Choir, for instance, annual visitors to Southwest France where I live, end their concerts with a folk song or two. These moments are always very special.

Kreek was particularly interested in traditional music as used in church services, including hymns, sung prayers and psalm settings. He made choral arrangements of the pieces he collected, and these arrangements have entered into the repertoire of Estonian choirs. This programme is a collection of these. A series of instrumental interludes is included, played on the nyckelharpa, a kind of fiddle with keys for the left hand, and on the kannel, the traditional Estonian zither. Marco Ambrosini, Angela Ambrosini and Anne-Liisa Eller play these instruments with great sensitivity, and their contribution will surely encourage listeners to explore the many videos of these lovely instruments available on YouTube.

The choral pieces are, for the most part, arrangements, but the word is inadequate to describe what Kreek did with them; to put it another way, one is never quite sure where the traditional tune ends and Kreek begins. An excellent booklet note from Paul Griffiths points out that these pieces were intended to be sung by church choirs. It’s true that the notes on the page are often not all that difficult, but the voices, especially the men’s, are frequently divided. The setting of Psalm 104, for instance, finds itself in nine parts at one point, and though this is exceptional the technique itself is pretty constant. Another technical point is the frequent use of held notes and pedal points, and given that this is often at the bottom of the texture, some good, strong basses are needed in the ranks. All this produces a rich choral texture which, combined with the simple beauty of the melodies, renders these pieces irresistible and frequently very moving.

Anyone who has heard amateur choirs from the Baltic region knows that they sing with an open, straightforward passion and fervour that tends to elude their southern equivalents. Vox Clamantis is not an amateur choir, but a highly trained and disciplined ensemble – fifteen singers are named in the booklet – but they sing with the same communication and candour that characterises their country’s amateur groups. They employ little vibrato, the women’s voices brilliant, and the men’s like rich treacle, producing an overall sound that envelopes the listener and welcomes you in. Kreek made arrangements of seven psalms – often setting only parts of the text – which are published in a single volume by Muusikaprojekt. You will hear superb performances of four of them sung by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Paul Hillier on the first volume of the Harmonia Mundi series ‘Baltic Voices’ [HMU907311). They are included there as part of a seven-composer collection, whereas the aim of this magnificent ECM disc is quite different.

All the music in this programme is of traditional origin in arrangements by Kreek, with the exception of ‘The last dance’ which is purely instrumental and arranged by Angela and Marco Ambrosini, and a virelai by Machaut that is most touchingly incorporated into the final piece. There is not much fast music, which makes the programme ideal for late night listening, but each piece is sumptuous in its own right and repays careful attention. For any listener yet to discover the choral music of the Baltic region in general, and of this unusual and little-known composer in particular, this gorgeous disc is urgently recommended.

Buy this disc.

William Hedley
The sun shall not smite thee (Psalm 121) [3:05]
Whilst great is our poverty [5:17]
Jacob’s dream/Proemial Psalm [11:55]
From heaven above to earth I come [5:56]
Bless the lord, my soul [Psalm 104) [2:25]
Awake, my heart [6:53]
Praise the name of the lord [2:21]
Do the birds worry? [5:06]
Lord, I cry unto thee [2:27]
He, who lets God prevail [3:55]
By the rivers of Babylon [5:36]
The last dance [Angela Ambrosini, Marco Ambrosini) [2:39]
O Jesus, thy pain/Dame, vostre doulz viaire [Guillaume de Machaut) [12:06]

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