Ester Mägi – Symphony

by 5:4

Despite being one of Estonia’s foremost composers, Ester Mägi‘s reputation is pretty negligible outside the borders of her native land. It’s a situation that, thus far, hasn’t changed since her death in 2021, at the age of 99. My own contact with her music, despite the extent to which i’ve steeped myself in Estonian music over the last few years, remains minimal: she’s rarely performed during the annual Estonian Music Days festival (and, obviously, never in the UK) and there are very few recordings of her work. In fact, the only piece of Mägi’s that i know well is the Symphony, composed in 1968 and one of only four orchestral works in her otherwise very extensive output (the others being a 3-minute Waltz (1968), a symphonic poem Meri (The Sea, 1979) and Bukoolika (Bucolic, 1983), which pops up on BBC Radio 3’s ‘Through the Night’ bizarrely often).

One of the things i particularly like about Mägi’s Symphony is its staunch avoidance of conventional symphonic structures and concepts. With a duration of around 12 minutes, despite being in three movements the last of these is a reworking of the first, creating in essence a modified ternary form. Furthermore, Mägi clearly wasn’t interested in themes, counterpoint or even a particularly clear notion of development. Instead, her Symphony is the product of tensions, though these tensions are caused by stark material contrasts rather than intra-orchestral friction: as with a lot of Estonian orchestral music, the instruments all seem to be on the same page throughout.

The opening Allegro assai is a real blink-and-you’ll-miss-it movement. Founded on irregular but seemingly unstoppable momentum, just a few seconds in a more sustained motif emerges with some force. The strings take over (0:35), channelling the momentum into a strident angular idea, before returning to the opening material (0:50). The unexpected centre of this movement involves reducing the forward propulsion to a more chugging demeanour (without any reduction in tempo) so another sustained idea can be heard in the violins (1:10). As previously, though, it appears to be inconsequential: there are two chirpy woodwind asides (1:18 & 1:31), and two massive flare-ups of the rhythmic music (1:21 & 1:45), the latter of which, like a series of crashing waves, links to a rising sequence clearly derived from the shape of the angular idea and some final climactic pounding. Done and dusted in barely more than two minutes.

Ester Mägi

Though not a ‘slow movement’ as such, the central Andante (2:22) is nonetheless more moderate and thoughtful, based on a small motif (possibly also derived from the angular idea) passed between the instruments, creating a gentle, contrapuntal interlude. This almost imperceptibly morphs (3:10 onwards) into tiny staccatos that continue alongside an oscillating string idea and, more strongly, a return to the motif in the winds, in the process (3:44) becoming a clear rhythmic pattern. The two elements then abruptly merge (4:06) in a loud, punchy tutti; even though its material is well established, its attitude isn’t, coming as a shock suggesting all that intense energy from the first movement has simply been waiting in the wings. As such, following this unexpected climax – which continues for a full minute – there’s a sense that, even though the music calms even more than before, it’s not to be trusted. There’s now an implied volatility that puts everything on edge. It’s not surprising, then, that the conclusion of the movement sounds cautious, as if turned inward, its softness coloured by a kind of wistfulness (the strings in particular don’t seem sure what to do) given poignancy by a fragile piccolo line (5:12) and, later, gentle celesta notes. Where the first section of this movement sounded positive, trying out a new idea, this last section sounds negative, like an aftermath, music that’s dazed. It goes nowhere, fizzling out into an echo of the opening motif (6:40) with the sharp staccatos now muted into subdued timpani notes, ending with an ominous pianissimo tam-tam strike.

The final movement is marked Presto, but on each of the few occasions i’ve heard the Symphony it’s taken at precisely the same tempo as the first movement (but then, Allegro assai ≈ Presto). This makes sense, as it’s a sudden plunge straight back to the same momentum and material of that movement. Its opening replaces the irregular driving strings with bludgeoning drum rhythms, though the strings eventually start to get involved, at which point (7:33) the sustained motif appears, louder than before. Thereafter it follows the same course until the middle sequence (8:23) where, instead of reducing to the more chugging music, Mägi keeps the pressure on, taking the orchestra through a sequence of what sound like increasingly exuberant rallying cries as the symphony hurtles along. This culminates in absolute fervour, strings and winds frantically scurrying through downward passages (9:31) while the brass seem to be heralding something momentous. Yet the clamour comes to nothing, and the Symphony undergoes the last of its huge volte faces, entering (10:03) a slow, reflective coda that becomes increasingly ethereal. A trumpet and tuba make suggestions in the form of a slowed-down fanfare (10:32) and an ungainly rising arpeggio (10:45). The latter ends up being incorporated into the strings’ music, which becomes like a veiled processional, rising one final time in a last gasp resurgence of the angular idea from earlier. This too goes nowhere, and the trumpet returns, now muted, leading to final tonic chord that leaves one wondering where on earth it came from.

Such wild volatility and, at the last, such a seemingly blatant unconvincing resolution perhaps make sense from a composer who, at the time she composed the Symphony, was living under Soviet occupation for nearly three decades. That in itself makes it a potential sibling to other, more famous, Soviet-strictured symphonies, though avoiding heart-wringing despair in favour of a succinct account of overbearing zeal running rough-shod over everything else.

This performance of Ester Mägi’s Symphony was given in January 2022 by the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andres Kaljuste.

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Chris L

Interesting that, despite being written later than the Ustvolskaya, and by an Estonian, this work sounds much more “Soviet” by comparison – the brittle militarism that’s so prevalent in it seems to have been a kind of lingua franca among a great number of the composers living under that regime, individual stylistic nuances notwithstanding.

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