Friday 9 May 2014

Coptic epic - Peeter Vähi's Maria Magdalene

Peeter Vähi - Maria Magdalena
The Estonian composer Peeter Vähi has a catalogue of works which encompass Oriental and Western, avant-garde and archaic, acoustic and electroni. He is also artistic director of ERP (Estonian Record Productions). Amongst his works issued on disc by the company is his oratorio Maria Magdalena (Peuangelion Kata Marihamm). Written for soprano, tenor, baritone and bass soloists, narrator, choir and orchestra the work sets part of the Gospel of Maria Magdalene, one of the Gnostic gospels preserved by the Coptic church and surviving in Coptic manuscripts. Rather daringly Vähi sets the work in the original Coptic. On disc the work is performed by Sevara Nazarkhan as Mary Magdalene, Priit Volmer as Jesus, Peeter Volkonski as the narrator, Juris Jekabsons as Andrew, Eduards Fiskovics as Levi and Ugis Mengelis as Peter, with the Mixed Choir Latvia, Riga Cathedral Boys Choir and the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Risto Joost.

The work was commissioned by the StateChoir Latvija and Riga International Sacred Music Festival, and premiered in Riga at the festival in 2011. The work is dedicated to Vähi's teacher Eino Tamberg.

Fragment of the Gospel of Maria Magdalene
Fragment of the Gospel of Maria Magdalene

The Coptic language of the libretto is not that of the current Coptic church (which uses a dialect called Bohairic), but a now extinct dialect called Sahidic and so what we here is very much a guess as to pronunciation. Vähi has used the text from the gospel without any additions; this does not tell the passion story in the conventional sense but philosophical reflections by Jesus, plus comments (and sometimes rather jealous) comments from the Apostles.
Vähi's orchestra includes two piccolos, a piccolo clarinet, two long horns (I'm not quite sure what the CD booklet means by these) and a selection of percussion including Egpytian style ones. The work is inspired by the Coptic liturgy and Vähi's intention is to evoke the liturgy and there are recordings of the liturgy played during the performance. (The Cd booklet credits Arvo Part with supplying Vähi with recordings of the Coptic liturgy).

The work opens with the sound of wind, and then there is a blaze of light from chorus and orchestra, with the ringing of bells. The piece then proceeds in seven movements, though essentially it plays continuously. The booklet includes the text in Coptic (!), and it is possible to download the text in English form the EPR website, but as this is neither divided in tracks, nor has the text allocated to soloists and chorus, it is profoundly difficult to follow. Which leaves the listener with the only viable option, to simply put the disc in the turntable and see what happens.

Vähi's style is essentially tonal, with a heavy admixture of Eastern influences both in terms of the sort of scales used and in the exotic percussion. In his use of ostinatos and rhythmic figures, with lots of brass, Vähi's writing evoked some of Orff's large-scale works. But the vocal writing often had the qualities akin to the way Stravinsky writes for voices in his mass.

Partly through the Vähi's style, and partly because I was listening to the work without a clear text, it very much evoked a film score for me, a very dramatic, epic one. And I did think that a film work based on the piece might work very well. (You can hear the work as an MP3 on the ERP website, and one of Vähi's other works is on YouTube)

The performance under Risto Joost is admirable and evokes Vähi's chosen sound world in brilliant technicolour. The soloists are quite a diverse group, Sevara Nazarkhan is an Uzbeki singer/songwriter, whilst Priit Volmer is an Estonia opera singer and the narrator, Peeter Volkonski is an Estonian actor, rock-musician and composer. But Joost welds them into a single entity, and he shows fine control of the large scale work (lasting just over an hour).

The large forces needed for the work, combined with the text in a dead language mean that it is not likely to be revived very often. So this CD is an interesting record, and a means of exploring a composer not well known in the the UK.

Peeter Vähi (born 1955) - Maria Magdalena (2011) [62.41]
Sevara Nazarkhan (soprano, Mary Magdalene)
Juris Jēkabsons (tenor, Andreas)
Eduards Fiskovičs (baritone, Levi)
Priit Volmer (basso, Jesus)
Uģis Meņģelis (basso, Peter)
Peeter Volkonski (narrator)
Riga Dom Cathedral Boys Choir
State Choir Latvija
Latvian National Symphony Orchestra
conductor Risto Joost
Recorded: Nov 29th − Dec 1st, 2011, Great Guild Hall, Riga
ERP 5412 1 CD [62.41]
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