Cyrillus Kreek: The Suspended Harp of Babel (CD Review)

Jaan-Eik Tulve, Vox Clamantis; Instrumental preludes and interludes by Marco and Angela Ambrosini (nyckelharpa) and Anna-Lüsa Eller (kennel). ECM New Series ECM 2620.

By Karl W. Nehring

There are times when I sit down at the keyboard to write a review and feel simply inadequate. It is not that I undervalue my writing skill (although I do not claim to be a particularly great writer, t have been doing it reasonably well for what now seems to be an unreasonably long time) or that the subject of my review seems especially difficult to address (I have plenty of notes on this recording from which to draw upon). No, I simply feel inadequate. I just do not feel as if I can adequately -- much less fully -- express how beautiful this recording is. But in the noble spirit of that stirring admonition, "Duty, Honor, Classical Candor," I will do my bumbling best.

First, though, a bit of background on Cyrillus Kreek (1889-1962), who was an Estonian composer whose original given name was Karl Ustav Kreek, but for some reason unfathomable to me he changed his name to Cyrillus Kreek. Because Estonia was at the time part of the Russian Empire, Kreek pursued his study of music at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he started studying trombone but switched to composition. After graduating in 1918, he began teaching music while continuing his quest to capture the folk music of his native Estonia. According to the liner notes, by the time he died in 1962, he had notated nearly 1,300 songs, both sacred and secular, and made choral arrangements for about 75% of them, providing a rich inventory of music for Estonian choirs, including the country's foremost small vocal ensemble, Vox Clamantis.

The liner notes go on to explain that "this recording includes four of the self-standing psalms Kreek set over the years between 1914 and 1944, including three from 1923 (104 and141 as well as the opening 121) and one from 1938 (137). These are also the four that, together with two other sacred pieces, he arranged for orchestra as Musica sacra in 1943 -- a year in which he produced several such orchestrations of music based on folk material, to be broadcast to an Estonia occupied by Nazi forces." The remaining selections on this recording include some other folk hymns by Kreek as well as some short fantasias composed by Marco Ambrosini based on musical ideas from Kreek's arrangements. Indeed, the striking instrumental accompaniment and interludes provided by the nyckelharpa and kannel (more explanation below of these unfamiliar instruments) are vital elements contributing to the sublime beauty of this recording.

Jaan-Eik Tulve
Although as with just about any good music this recording can bring pleasure when heard semi-seriously or even casually, to gain full measure of its beauty it really needs to be listened to seriously, in s setting free of distractions both audible and visual, paying some reasonable measure of attention to loudspeaker placement and such. And please, I am not advocating audiophile-grade levels of fussiness, just some more than casual but less than fanatical attention to the listening environment conducive to rewarding sonic satisfaction and musical appreciation for what Kreek, the performers, and the engineers have wrought.

The opening measures of the opening cut, "The Sun Shall Not Smite Thee," clearly and immediately establish the musical and sonic beauty of this recording. The soaring women's voices fill a clearly defined acoustic space, a space soon to be filled by men's voices that provide an echo from a more earthly plane. As the program proceeds, the instrumentalists provide interludes as well as occasional accompaniment to the choir. The nyckelharpas are usually bowed, but sometimes plucked, while the kannel shows its versatility by sometimes sounding much like a harp, at other times something like a harpsichord.

The music on this recording often sounds devotional in nature, but a good portion is firmly based on folk themes, as in the third track, "Jacob's  Dream / Proemial Psalm (from 'Orthodox Vespers')," which begins with a solo female voice accompanied by the kannel, then undergirded by a male voice in recitation, with the whole chorus finally taking over for the closing minutes. Tracks 6 ("Awake, My Heart") and 7 ("Praise the Name of the Lord [from 'Orthodox Vespers'])" also manifest a variety of sonic textures and musical styles, the former beginning with a brief nyckelharpa introduction, then some solo female voice, then some folk-based instrumental passages, some singing by the whole chorus, more instrumental passages, the return of the solo female vocal, then the whole chorus, the nyckelharpa, and then the program transitions to a more devotional tone taken up by the chorus in the latter track.

The interplay of different textures and styles continues as the program proceeds, but the collection does not sound like a random grab bag. Kreek's music seems to have a perspective based on what I would take to be a reverence for both heavenly and earthly realms. His devotional music is rooted in the actual devotion of real people, resulting in music meant to be sung by an earthly chorus rather than by a choir of angels, while his folk-based music elevates these tunes by creating musical lines that sound comfortably at home when performed in sanctified spaces.

As the album continues on towards its close, that sense of music filling a sanctified space is gloriously evoked in  track 11, "By the Rivers of Babylon," performed by male chorus. The music produced by these singers sounds pure and holy from the highest voices down to the bass, their "alleluias" seeming capable of touching the souls of believers and nonbelievers alike, whether perceived as praises to the divine or musical manifestations of the sublime. Following this intense experience, the next track, "The Last Dance," is performed by the Ambrosinis on their two nyckelharpas, weaving simple melodies that offer listeners a chance to unwind a bit from the intensity off the previous track before moving on to the album's final track, "O Jesus, Thy Pain / Dame, Vostre Doulz Viaire," which combines music by Kreek with music from the 14th-century French composer Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300-1377). The track begins with a woman singing a folk hymn ("O Jesus…") arranged by Kreek, followed by the kannel playing the melody of Machaut's "Dame…" The nyckelharpas then enter, first joining the kannel in the Machaut, then providing instrumental underpinning as the music shifts back to the solo female voice singing the hymn. The three instruments then take the spotlight again as they return to the Machaut, this time in an arrangement by Marco Ambrosini. The music of Kreek returns, first with female voices, then joined by male voices as Kreek works in polyphony that the liner notes point out stem from an old German chorale that Bach had used in his St. Matthew Passion. Although this summary might seem to describe quite a musical mishmash, the music hangs together and provides a memorable finish to the album.

Concerning the unusual instruments that add an extra measure of color to the sound, the kannel is essentially an Estonian zither, with metal strings that are plucked with both hands. The basic design is thought to go back more than a thousand years, with more strings being added over time, the modern version able to cover nearly four octaves. As to the nyckelharpa, it is a Scandinavian instrument that is essentially a keyed fiddle. It has bowed strings and resonant strings, producing a rich sound. Crazily enough, just across the creek on the other side of the farm field across the road from my home lives a genial gentleman who actually makes nyckelharpas. For more information about this fascinating instrument, you can navigate to www.cloudninemusical.com.

As I said at the outset, the net effect of the music, the performance, and the recorded sound combine to make The Suspended Harp of Babel an indescribably beautiful release. The informative liner notes and lyrics translated into English add to the overall quality of the production.

KWN

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa