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Ester MÄGI (b. 1922)
Vesper (1990 arr. 1998) [7:32] *
Piano Concerto (1953) [22:42]
Bukoolika (1983) [8:34] *
Variations for Piano, Clarinet and Chamber Orchestra (1972) [12:22]
Symphony (1968) [13:29] *
Ada Kuseoks (piano); Mati Mikalai (piano); Tarmo Pajusaar (clarinet)
Estonian National SO/Arvo Volmer; Mihkel Kütson (Variations; Symphony)
rec. October 2000 (Vesper); 3-4 December 1992 (Piano Concerto); 24 February 1995 (Bukoolika); 10 January 2002 (Variations; Symphony), Estonia Concert Hall; Estonia Radio (Concerto). DDD
Eesti Radio
First release in West except for Variations
TOCCATA TOCC 0054 [64:44]
Sound Sample
Opening of Vesper
Sound samples are removed after two months

Tallinn-born Ester Mägi graduated in 1951 and then spent three years in Moscow in Shebalin's post-graduate course. There she encountered Veljo Tormis. Her Moscow graduation composition was based on the Kalevipoeg (Estonian national epic) and was scored for male voice chorus, soloist and orchestra. It was premiered in 1961 – surely something that should be recorded. She taught at the Tallinn Conservatory until her retirement in 1984.

Mägi's Vesper is evening music - no religious reference is intended. The music began life for violin and piano. It is no wonder that it has become popular in Estonia. It is emotional yet dignified - a great throbbing Sibelian hymn with inflections possibly drawn in from Barber's Adagio, RVW's Tallis Fantasia and Rachmaninov's Vocalise. I had to go back and play it again straightaway. The Piano Concerto is an early work, the earliest here, and is in a conservatively nationalist-romantic mode with some moments doing pretty candid obeisance to Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov. The note writer Urve Lippus claims Bartók and Stravinsky. I just don't hear it except passingly in the dancing Allegro and then the folk voice is more to the fore. It's a delightful work and very straightforward in expression. Bukoolika (or Bucolica) is a series of short pastoral scenes for orchestra. Impressions: Delian, swains' piping, birdsong, dancing, shepherd calls, the entrancing tinkle of icy bells (6.48) and the like. Just occasionally I thought of Nielsen. It's a warm piece and hearing this recording reminds us that it was taken down in concert. There is the occasional cough and shuffle. It is not by any means static as we can hear at 3.27. Mägical stuff. It's unlike Pärt's Cantus or Rautavaara's Cantus Arcticus but somehow belongs in the company of those works.

We are told that the Variations are popular in Estonia. They start glum and sombre. The piano is sometimes used edgily and percussively. At 2:23 its motoric impacts recall Petrushka then its attack becomes more vicious and cut-glass, rather like the similar assaults in Panufnik's Piano Concerto. This is a very different work from Mägi's Piano Concerto. It is clearly from another and less emotionally yielding era. From four years previously comes the 13½ minute symphony in three micro movements: 2:30; 5:09; 6:08. The allegro assai blazes forward ruthlessly and in grim-faced uproar. There is something of the more obstreperous writing of Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra here but there’s also the blow-torch roar of the Soviet war symphony in full flight. The Andante is more gentle but the relaxation is overlaid with a striding desolation. The long final Presto keeps a firm grip on the momentum and there's even a Dies Irae reference (1.01). The brusque strings and storming horns grippingly recall the merciless writing of William Schuman. By the way, the Symphony follows with hardly any silence after the end of the Variations.

Have your horizons broadened and be happy about it. Toccata and Martin Anderson score another palpable hit. Mägi's name will from now on be on your 'to collect' list. The conspiratorial sliding march of the final pages of the Symphony and its underpinning ostinato belled discreetly by the trombones will stay with you as will the long held notes of the final pages. This is marmoreal valedictory and epilogic writing as memorable as that of Bax or Petttersson or Shostakovich but more concise than any of them.

Rob Barnett

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