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