This article was originally published in:
The Choral Scholar & American Choral Review — The online journal of the National Collegiate Choral Organization
Volume 58, Number 4, Fall 2020
Cyrillus Kreek (1889–1962) is best known in the international choral world for his two Psalm settings, Taaveti laul nr. 1 Õnnis on inimene [Blessed is the Man] and nr. 104 Kilda mu hing Issandat [Bless the Lord, My Soul]. Although Kreek studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, he had great interest in the folk music of his homeland of Estonia and began collecting folk songs from around the country. Because of this work, he is considered one of nationalistic music style.
The Suspended Harp of Babel allows listeners to explore more deeply the intermingled traditions of Estonian folk and sacred songs that represent the Estonian nationalistic style. This recording showcases a wonderful balance of four psalm settings (Taaveti laulud, Psalms of David) written from 1923 1944, four sacred folk tunes from 1917–1919, and four additional forms, including traditional Orthodox vespers and a presentation of the traditional Estonian folk form of regilaul intertwined with the Orthodox vespers. All of these pieces are connected beautifully with introductions and interludes composed by Marco Ambrosini and played on the kannel, a traditional Estonian zither, and the Swedish nyckelharpa, Kreek’s connection to the Swedish folk traditions stems from time he spent in the Estonian Swedish villages while he was collecting folk incipits. Incorporating the nyckelharpa is a beautiful way to honor that connection.
The album is artistically constructed with great attention to the order and flow of the compositions, creating an overall feeling of a “folk liturgical event.” This order introduces the listener to the three distinct forms of the compositions and then allows the listener to forms alternate between the tracks.
Grammy-winning Vox Clamantis, founded in 1996, is one of the premiere Estonian choral ensembles. They are known for their clear, full and balanced ensemble sound, and they execute all of these qualities through this recording. Their as they move from lyric folk song melodic lines to beautiful and lush chordal movement in the orthodox vespers and hymn-like portions. Known for their love and interpretation of Gregorian chant and the music of Arvo Pärt, they transfer those skills and focus beautifully to their thoughtful and sincere interpretation of these pieces by Cyrillus Kreek.
Jacob’s Dream / Orthodox Vespers: Proemial Psalm [Jakobi unenägu/Algulaul] encapsulates the true spirit of the album with the interweaving of the call and response form of the Estonian regilaul (this one is from the Kanepi parish of southeastern Estonia), the free improvisation by both the kannel and nyckelharpa, and the haunting traditional chant and response of the Orthodox Vespers Proemial Psalm.
The sacred folk tunes presented have a beautiful comfort in their hymn-like form, but also incorporate folk performance practice elements that create an ethereal experience traversing the sacred and the secular. In From Heaven Above to Earth I Come [Ma tulen taevast ülevalt], the juxtaposition of the chorale-like hymn form with the improvisation of the nyckelharpa is an celestial mixture of sounds: a Renaissance-like hymns wrapped together with a slightly raw folk timbre. It is as if the performance spans centuries all within a few minutes.
The juxtaposition of folk and sacred comes to the forefront again in Awake My Heart [Mu süda, ärka üles], where lively and energetic interludes by the kannel, nyckelharpa, and percussion are interspersed with the sacred folk tune in a traditional chorale arrangement and verses sung by a cantor, representing a pseudo regilaul leader in this amalgam of the folk and sacred.
This recording is an excellent entry point to the creative world of Cyrillus Kreek, as access to many of Kreek’s compositions has been challenging in the past for conductors outside of the Baltic region. For more information on Kreek and his compositions, the Estonian Music Information Centre (emic.ee) has created a wonderful database of his works that includes a short biography, listing of his compositions and reference information for where the manuscripts are held, what recordings are available, and how to purchase his scores.