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CD Review

Judith Lang Zaimont

Art Fire Soul

  • Piano Sonata (2000)
  • Calendar Collection (1976; excerpts)
  • Jupiter's Moons (2000)
  • Wizards - 3 Magic Masters (2003)
  • Nocturne "La fin de siècle" (1979)
  • A Calendar Set - 12 Virtuosic Preludes (1975)
  • Cortège for Jack (2010)
  • Suite Impressions - Jazz Waltz (1996)
  • American City: A Portrait of New York (1957; rev. 2010)
  • Hitchin' - A Travellin' Groove (2007)
  • In my Lunchbox (2003)
  • Hesitation Rag (1998)
  • Reflective Rag (1975)
  • Judy's Rag (1974)
  • Serenade (2006)
Elizabeth Moak, piano
MSR Classics MS1366 155:36 2CDs
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Judith Lang Zaimont stands in the long line of pianist-composers. She studied with, among others, Rosa Lhevinne at Juilliard. She formed a piano duo with her sister Doris, and the team produced a recording, sought after by collectors, and even appeared on Mitch Miller's TV show. A composing prodigy, she won awards in her early teens, although she did study with Jack Beeson, among others. Her compositions show a wide span, from the popular to the fairly knotty. All of them, however, reveal a strong musical and architectural focus. She neither natters nor sloughs off hard thought. After teaching at various universities, including the University of Minnesota, she now lives with her husband in Arizona.

The double-CD album sets out a smorgasbord of her work, early and late, divided (not really convincingly) into "Concert Pieces" and "Character Pieces." She tends to write with a program in mind, although it's more a matter of initial, private inspiration than a structural principle, so in that sense, most of the works here are character pieces. Also, every one of them takes a pianist with at least serious chops, if not always virtuosic technique. None would be out of place in a concert recital.

It's a generous program, too much for me, at any rate, to review in detail. Consequently, I will mark in general those pieces that especially appealed to me.

For me, the Piano Sonata stands out as the biggest work in scope and substance. Its three movements – "Ricerca," "Canto," and "Impronta digitale" – go fast - slow - fast. The work shows a healthy ambition, not least in its generally dramatic, serious tone. "Ricerca" (search) works with two main ideas – one yearning, one toccata-like. The liner notes claim it as a sonata movement, but I haven't heard that yet. What strikes me as clearer is that the two ideas seem to interpenetrate: the searching becomes more nervous and rhythmic, the toccata becomes more expansive and exploring. The ringing of bells also looms large in this movement. Zaimont emphasizes singing in, appropriately enough, "Canto." It seems a personal reimagining of the Beethoven adagio, an impression confirmed when a near-literal quote (harmony differs slightly) from the "Adagio cantabile" of Beethoven's "Pathétique." At that point, you realize that Zaimont has been playing with that theme all along. The general tenor of both slow movements is the same, but the Beethoven is purer in its effect. Unlike Zaimont, he doesn't need to reference anybody else. Zaimont also includes scherzo-like episodes for contrast. Nevertheless, Zaimont has written one impressive movement. The finale, "Impronta digitale" (fingerprint), as its title implies, makes use of a panoply of touch, from light to heavy, short to lingering. Most of it proceeds as a toccata, although elements of both previous movements occasionally sneak in.

Zaimont has a great fascination with nature and astronomy. The suite Jupiter's Moons considers five of Jupiter's 67 (and counting, apparently) satellites – Europa, Leda, Io, Ganymede, Callisto – plus an introduction which depicts the moons swimming in space. Each movement also brings to my mind the Greek myths of Jupiter's lovers. Zeus (Jupiter) came to Europa in the form of a bull, and the music proceeds (mostly in the Dorian mode) steadily and implacably. Leda fell into Zeus's embrace when he took the shape of a swan. The movement evokes the stillness of a swan on the water and then a brief flurry of feathers. Zeus's wife, Hera, out of jealousy turned Io into a cow, tethered her to an olive tree, and set the many-eyed Argus to guard her. Zeus sent Hermes to distract and slay Argus and to set Io free. However, a fly stung her and sent her running through the world. It's this last bit, I believe, that stirred Zaimont. Ganymede is the youth Zeus stole to become cupbearer to the gods. This scherzo movement emphasizes the quicksilver impetuousness of the youth – in its way, very similar in feeling to Holst's "Mercury." Callisto, poor thing, was turned into a bear. Appropriately, her movement growls, lumbers, and even scampers.

From my description, you might be inclined to dismiss all this as quaint fluff, but the music won't let you. Zaimont's music almost always aims for depth or even Schumannesque Empfindung. One can call these character pieces because there's no other term that comes close, but they're not precious salon morceaux.

At this point, I can make no contact with Wizards at all. I get the structure, but not the rhetoric or the emotional vibe. Consequently, I can't say much interesting about it.

The moody Nocturne begins in Chopin and transforms into the mercurialness of a late Scriabin sonata. Some nocturnes provide the occasion to commune with the universe, but Zaimont's nocturne explores more the long, dark shadows of the psyche.

Jeffrey W. James's liner notes observe that up through the Seventies, Zaimont wrote piano music for her own use as a concert pianist, but she wasn't exclusive about it, as A Calendar Set and the Calendar Collection make clear. In both, each month gets a prelude. However, I strongly suspect that Zaimont intended A Calendar Set for her own use. However, it proved a hit with audiences, and a publisher asked her for a similar group for advanced students, the Calendar Collection. For the latter, she provided not only the preludes, but the preparatory exercises as well.

The miniatures should appeal to young pianists who want something exciting and adult to play. They test not only technique, but musicality. We get nine of the twelve, missing "January," "February," and "June." "March: The Winds Depart," for example, consists largely of two lines, fast runs in both hands, but each hand more or less phrasing on its own, with different stops and restarts, and going its own way, rather than in lockstep. It also happens to be a sharply-drawn picture of buffeting winds. "May: The May-fly" concentrates on lightness of touch. "August: Anthem" works on legato, cantabile chords and low dynamic. "September: The Winds Arise" seems an update on Chopin's "Winter Wind" etude in its mood and imagery. "October: Autumn Thoughts" is such a gorgeous piece, it disarms criticism. Then there are pieces mainly for fun, like "July: Holiday" and "December: Sleighride." Again, Zaimont invests each piece with solid invention and deep sensibility.

As good as the Collection is, Zaimont's Calendar Set surpasses it. Her inventiveness kicks into higher gear, and she writes with great cogency. Again, each month gets an etude. This time, Zaimont appends an epigraph to most of them and reveals a wide reading. As with the Collection, the main compositional impulse is descriptive, although one can admire very sturdy architecture throughout. Two of my favorite movements are "July: The Glorious Fourth" and "December: Carols," both quodlibets. In one type of quodlibet, several well-known tunes sound simultaneously. Bach probably wrote the best-known example, the last variation of the Goldbergs. "July" pits the trio tune of Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever" against "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean" and "Yankee Doodle." "December" gives us "Adeste fideles," "Joy to the World," "God rest ye, merry gentlemen," "Bring a torch, Jeannette, Isabella," and "Silent Night."

Zaimont's teacher, Jack Beeson, died in 2010. The heartfelt Cortège for Jack was written in his memory. A dirge, its underlying rhythm repeats "Bee-son" over and over. Zaimont says she realized it only after she completed the piece.

The Jazz Waltz is jazz mainly in its swing and harmonic voicings. It reminds me a bit of Brubeck's examples in the genre.

At the age of 12, little Judy Lang wrote American City, a suite inspired by the sights and sounds of her native New York. Her mother told her to go over the score in ink and submitted it to a competition, which her daughter won. Composing prodigies, especially those using a Modern musical language, fascinate me. Zaimont had very complex sounds in her ears at a very young age and, what's more, could get them down on paper. Indeed, I find her basically formed as a composer in this early piece. Granted, she minimally revised the work in 2010, mainly by adding a movement, putting in three extra measures, and changing a pitch here and there, but the suite remained the same in its essentials. The new movement, for example, fits right in. Six movements comprise the score: "Rush Hour," "Harbor Fog," "Coffee House," "Central Park," "'Scrapers" (the new movement), and "Garment Factory."

In "Rush Hour," cars move at frantic speed, jackhammers pound, and horns toss off an occasional beep. "Harbor Fog" updates Debussy's "Brouillards." "Coffee House" swings to a cool jazz trio. "Central Park" is a wistful little waltz, while "'Scrapers" rise like rockets into the sky. In "Garment Factory," the machine weavers, knitters, and sewers dart incessantly.

"Hitchin': A Travelin' Groove" does what its title promise. It's music for watching the landscape outside a car window fly by.

Zaimont tells the story of cutting up bananas and absent-mindedly whistling something. Her son poked his head in and told her she should write the tune down. This became the seed of In My Lunchbox, five movements dedicated to her son and four of his cousins: "Swimming Tuna," "Celery Stalks," "The Banana Song," "Mandarin Orange," and "Dessert – Sugar Rush." The tuna swim at a nice clip through echoing seas, like Debussy's "Poissons d'or." The celery stalks seem rigid, crisp, and slightly menacing. "Banana Song," a calypso, is one of those devilish tunes that you can't get out of your head yet can never quite get hold of, like the theme to Ravel's Bolero. "Mandarin Orange" is a gentle pentatonic tune that, wonder of wonders, manages to avoid the clichés of chinoiserie. In the finale, the music bounces nervously from here to there. Even the slower parts lurch a bit. A good piece for intermediate piano students who would like an entertaining challenge.

The three rags also appear on a CD of Zaimont's rags, Prestidigitations (MSR MS1238). "Hesitation Rag" and "Serenade" stretch the rag genre by abstracting the ragtime elements. "Hesitation" has moments of great yearning among the high-stepping. "Serenade" isn't a rag at all, but a Chopin nocturne speaking in American accents. "Reflective Rag" reflects and reminds me not so much of the ragtime era, but of Bernstein's Fancy Free ballet. "Judy's Rag" reveals a zany, knockabout sense of humor, music to accompany a Keystone Kops reel, and a "barrelhouse" trio.

Pianist Elizabeth Moak is a wonder. She negotiates Zaimont's wide stylistic and emotional range with musicianship and panache. I find her particularly impressive in the Sonata and in the "Serenade," two pieces quite different in their mood and their scale of virtuosity. She has learned a ton of new, difficult, and unfamiliar music, giving many recording premieres. I hope she keeps it in her repertoire. Most of it could hold its own in a serious recital, and there are a few encores that should tickle an audience.

Copyright © 2012, Steve Schwartz