For anyone who likes minimalism, this choral collection of psalms and folk songs really is essential listening.

Label:     ECM
Time:     13 Tracks / 70 mins

We last covered Jaan-Eik Tulve’s Vox Clamantis over two years ago, when they recorded fellow Estonian Arvo Pärt’s The Deer's Cry. I noted that these voices “are a joy to listen to, with ECM founder Manfred Eicher creating a beautifully pure sound, enhanced and gently softened by the warm resonance of Tallinn Transfiguration Church... For anyone who likes minimalism, this really is essential listening.”

All of that still applies here.

As hinted at in this 70-minute release’s title, which we might know better as “By the waters of Babylon...” this is largely a collection of lines from psalms given choral arrangements by Estonian composer Cyrillus Kreek. Six of the thirteen are based on psalms, a similar number contain folk hymns, with the rest being biblically inspired or an instrumental work designed to complement the rest of the collection.

Kreek (who died in 1962) was part composer and part collector of folk material, recording it as Cecil Sharp did for the wider English and American folk traditions.           

The bulk of this album is unaccompanied vocals, paced gently and with clear, uncomplicated arrangements (perhaps the folk element ensures a simplicity to the tunes). Where instruments accompany the music, or provide brief interludes, it is discreetly supplied by nyckelharpa (a bowed Swedish violin-like instrument, with drone strings) and the zither-like kannel.

The booklet has translations of all songs (not that you’ll need it for the Hallelujahs of Psalms 135-6 and the title track) and helpful background information, so the richness of the texts is available.

The twelve-minute track, “O Jesus, Thy Pain,” has almost tear-inducing and worshipful lyrics and the most sympathetic music to match.

The other twelve-minute piece, “Jacob’s Dream,” begins with the repetitive lines of a chant-like runic song, a style developed to make memorising the lines easier, and develops into a most beautiful melody as it encompasses prayers from Orthodox Vespers.

Overall, this is a calm-inducing collection of great beauty and with as much spiritual depth as the listener wants to take from it.    

Derek Walker