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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 Kuuseoks (piano: concerto); Mati Mikalai (piano: variations); Tarmo Pajusaar (clarinet)
Estonian National Symphony Orchestra/Mihkel Kütson (variations, symphony), Arvo Volmer
rec. Estonia Concert Hall; Estonian Radio 20 October, 2000 (Vesper); 3-4 December, 1992 (Piano Concerto); 24 February, 1995 (Bukoolika); 10 January, 2002 (Variations, Symphony).

As part of a tradition that has produced the likes of Eduard Tubin, Veljo Tormis and Arvo Pärt, Ester Mägi is rightly recognised as a national treasure and ‘the First lady of Estonian music’. As a country, Estonia’s cultural heritage and contribution is enormous in comparison to its population of little over 1.31 million and Mägi is a supreme representative of the rich musical vein that exists in this small Baltic state. As a ‘disciple’ of her teacher Mart Saar, founder of the national school in Estonian music, she set out to continue in his footsteps by adding to the collection of folk songs and melodies he had begun and these are prevalent throughout her music. She stuck resolutely to her style of composition without resorting to the new trends that emerged with the avant-garde of the 1950s or the minimalism of the 1970s. At times this saw her music somewhat marginalised when ‘the emperor’s new clothes’ were regarded by some in the musical establishment as more interesting than ‘traditional’ compositions. That is not to say that she has not been influenced at all by such developments, but she has taken time and reflected deeply before allowing any of these elements to become incorporated into her music. In recent years, however, her music has found new favour amongst listeners both at home and, increasingly, abroad. As such, this disc is to be welcomed as proof that her voice is a hugely valuable and distinctive one with music that is immediately accessible and richly rewarding.

Vesper was composed in 1990 for violin and piano (or organ) and arranged in 1998, following a commission, for string orchestra. It is gloriously melodic with long flowing lines that soar ever upward. It makes a beautiful introduction to Mägi’s sound world.

Her Piano Concerto dates from 1953 but was begun when she was still a student and completed during her studies in Moscow under Vissarion Shebalin. It is shot through from the start with folk references. These will be evident even to those with little or no knowledge of Estonian folk music, such is their universal appeal. As a result it has become one of her best known and best loved compositions. What a refreshing change it would make to hear a work such as this played in concert (or, better still at the Proms).

Bukoolika (Bucolica) was written in 1983. As the title suggests, it is a series of pastoral scenes for orchestra. While it is heavily imbued with folk references from both Estonian song and dance repertoire, complete with shepherd’s pipes, birdsong and shouts, it is sufficiently cleverly woven into her own style to be a genuinely original and exciting composition.

It was of no surprise to read in the accompanying booklet that Mägi’s Variations for Piano, Clarinet and Chamber Orchestra, from 1972, is among her most popular instrumental works. The dialogue created between the soloists and the orchestral responses is brilliantly executed and I just had to replay it as soon as it was over, so strong was its impact.

Ester Mägi’s 1968 Symphony begins with a forceful statement from the whole orchestra and underlines her statement that she did ‘not want to compose something gentle, female....That was the nature of the times’. By all accounts, she received a considerable amount of negative criticism for it and one can only really imagine that this was caused by the shock that such music could be written by a woman. She wrote that ‘it would be impossible to say something like that today’. I very much hope she is right and that we’ve moved on from the outdated idea that women cannot or should not compose music that reflects the world as it is rather than what we would like it to be. She certainly packs a wealth of ideas into its three short movements and reflects in them the modernistic trends prevalent at the time of writing without being fully drawn into any particular style. The dissonance she does introduce is perfectly in keeping with her overall aim.

Ester Mägi’s name was new to me but it has certainly sparked renewed interest in music from Estonia. Everything I have heard from that country so far has been extraordinarily powerful and exciting and well worth getting to know; Ester Mägi’s music is no exception. This is a valuable disc and a worthy introduction to a composer who deserves greater recognition outside her country, where she is rightly highly valued.

Steve Arloff

Previous review: Rob Barnett



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