"On the willow that harp is suspended, Oh, Salem! its sound should be free."
- Lord Byron, By the Rivers of Babylon We Sat Down and Wept
Vox Clamantis, under the direction of Jaan-Eik Tulve, has established itself as Estonia's foremost small vocal ensemble, at home in the worlds of both old and new music. Their ECM New Series discography, accordingly, has ranged from Gregorian chant and Perotin (as on Filia Sion) to present-day composers including Arvo Pärt (The Deer's Cry), Erkki-Sven Tüür (Oxymoron) and Helena Tulve (Arboles lloran por lluvia). On The Suspended Harp of Babel Vox Clamantis turns its attention to Cyrillus Kreek (1889-1962), whose work also took nourishment from ancient sources as well as from contemporaneous musical currents.
One of the innovators of choral music in Estonia, Kreek drew extensively upon folk music and was a pioneer in the documentation of it, recording, transcribing and preserving for posterity hundreds of songs, both sacred and secular. His arrangements of these folk songs and folk hymns, as well as his settings of psalms, provided a bedrock for choirs in an idiom of his own, described by Paul Griffiths in the liner notes here as "restrained and yet glowing."
Cyrillus Kreek, born in the village of Saanika, was a contemporary of Arvo Pärt's teacher Heino Eller, and both studied at the St Petersburg Conservatory in the years before the First World War. Kreek's music, emphasizing simplicity, clarity, and the natural quality of the human voice, influenced many composers in Estonia including Veljo Tormis (who also creatively deployed folk song in choral contexts) and Tõnu Kõrvits. The quietly radiant aura of his work is enhanced on the present recording by the contributions of Marco and Angela Ambrosini playing nyckelharpa and by Anna-Liisa Eller on kannel, the Estonian zither.
Marco Ambrosini's preludes and interludes imaginatively extend the spirit of Kreek's pieces and in the case of "Kui suur on meie vaesus" (Whilst great is our poverty), call the music forth, the nyckelharpa drone summoning the kannel to pick out the melody of the folk hymn, preparing the way for the entrance of the singers. Throughout the album the purity of the voices is striking – the liner notes speak of "voices with the transparency of spring water."
Kreek's music is celebrated in Estonia with a yearly festival, and there is a museum dedicated to the composer in Haapsalu. Documentation of his work outside his homeland has, however, been scant to date. The Suspended Harp of Babel– valuable both as entry point into Cyrillus Kreek's sound-world and for its pre-echoes of Estonian music to come - is likely to trigger overdue recognition for a unique composer and researcher.
The Suspended Harp of Babel was recorded in April 2018 in Tallinn's Transfiguration Church.
After leading the Paris Gregorian Choir and the Lac et Mel ensemble, Jaan Eik Tulve founded Vox Clamantis in Tallinn in 1996, and he remains its artistic director and conductor today. From the outset a collective with members sharing interest in Gregorian chant, Vox Clamantis has explored both early polyphony and contemporary music, with many composers writing new music for the group. The ensemble's collaborators have included Marco Ambrosini, Ariana Savall, Jean-Claude Pennetier and Yair Dalal. Vox Clamantis's recordings have won numerous awards, and in 2017 the ensemble received the National Cultural Award of the Republic of Estonia.
Marco Ambrosini, born 1964, studied violin, viola and composition at the G.B. Pergolesi Institute in Ancona and at Pesaro's Rossini Conservatory. One of few nyckelharpa players working outside the Swedish folk tradition, he took up the instrument in 1983 and has since shaped a new role for it in baroque and contemporary music. Ambrosini's ECM recordings include Resonances with his Ensemble Supersonus, and Inventio, duo performances with Jean-Louis Matinier, as well as albums with Rolf Lislevand (Nuove musiche, Diminuito) Giovanna Pessi/Susanna Wallumrød (If Grief Could Wait), and Helena Tulve (Arboles lloran por lluvia). Angela Ambrosini, born 2000, began playing nyckelharpa in 2010. She toured with the Oni Wytars ensemble in 2013 and first collaborated with Vox Clamantis in 2015.
Anna-Liisa Eller, born 1988, studied with Rolf Lisevand in Lyon and Trossingen. She has won awards including First Prize at the Helsinki international Kantele Competition in 2011. She works in close cooperation with early music ensembles including Lislevand's Ensemble Kapsberger, Vox Clamantis, Oni Wytars and Supersonus and has also performed with the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra.
CD booklet includes liner notes by Paul Griffiths and translations of all song texts