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CD Review

Judith Lang Zaimont


  • Sacred Service for the Sabbath Evening (excerpts) (1976)
  • A Woman of Valor (eshet hayil) (1977)
  • Parable: A Tale of Abram and Isaac (1986)
  • Meditations at the Time of the New Year (1997)
James Maddalena, baritone
Margaret Kohler, soprano
Frances Lucey, soprano
John Aler, tenor
Randall Scarlata, baritone
Rabbi Rodney Mariner, speaker
Martha Cowan, soprano
Kimball Wheeler, mezzo-soprano
Harold Lester, harpsichord
Everest String Quartet/Samuel Adler
Ernst Senff Choir
Radio Symphony Orchestra Berlin/Gerard Schwarz
The Ruskin Ensemble
Laudibus Choir/Michael Brewer
Choral Society of Southern California/Nick Strimple
Naxos 8.559444 66:12
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Wonderful.

Despite her awards and many commissions, the music of Judith Lang Zaimont has largely flown under the radar. I think this due largely to the lack of recordings on widely-distributed labels. This Naxos release, part of its Milken Archives series of American Jewish music, should do something to correct the oversight. I hope only that it doesn't get lost in Naxos' glut of releases, for it counts as one of the glories of the series.

Zaimont studied with Hugo Weisgall, Jack Beeson, Otto Luening, and André Jolivet, which lets you in on how highly people regarded her potential but gives you no clue as to what her music sounds like. From the little I've read about her, she seems to be an artist with a mission. She knew she was "born to be a composer" from about the age of eleven. To me, this usually indicates someone with definite ideas of what sort of music she wants to create. It's not a question of drifting into composition or, like Mendelssohn perhaps, having composition a "natural" part of oneself from the beginning. Certainly, Zaimont writes music of decided individuality, within a largely traditionally tonal frame. In her aesthetic, she shares more with composers before 1950 than after it. But she doesn't write Nice Music, either, and she has a wide expressive range. Not all her work addresses the empyrean. She has pieces that she's written for fun, and more power to her.

All the works here, by the nature of the series, concentrate on one aspect of Zaimont's output – her inspiration from Jewish and Biblical subjects. Each of these scores has meat, but the Sacred Service aims the highest, it seems to me. Despite its title, strictly speaking it's not a liturgical work, although Zaimont has adapted some of it for use in a service. To a great extent, Zaimont treats her texts rather regally, taking from here and there to fashion her libretto. All of it seems to come from Reform, rather than Orthodox or Conservative, practice. Indeed, that she writes for the Sabbath evening service (Friday night, rather than Saturday morning) indicates Reform tradition. Almost every Jewish composer working consciously as a Jew comes up against the towering example of Ernest Bloch and makes a choice of following Bloch or trying another path. In general, Zaimont follows Bloch in the distribution of the music between a soloist (also a baritone) representing a cantor and the chorus representing the congregation. Although Zaimont, like Bloch, strikes an epic note, it's her own epic note.

It's all tonally-based. If I had to say whom she sounded like, I'd name both Weisgall (in certain moments) and Jolivet. Her orchestration in particular strikes me as very French. She builds firmly over larger spans. Nothing meanders. All her lines give you the feeling that they lead somewhere, and the destination, though unpredictable, seems right once you arrive. She's not afraid of dissonance, but she's also not shy about writing a good tune. Yet the tune is hardly ever the point of her work. All the compositional elements – melody, harmony, rhythm, color, and motific argument tend to find a hierarchical equilibrium. For example, one of the numbers of the Sacred Service sets a widely-used melody for the Sh'ma Yisrael – the so-called Sulzer melody. This tune, of stunning banality, drove me out of the temple faster than Jesus did the money changers. Zaimont, however, somehow finds gold. This passage reminds me of Bartók's transmutation of Hungarian folk music.

The choral writing throughout cannily mixes declamatory, homophonic passages with simple, clear contrapuntal ones. Zaimont concerns herself with making the text intelligible, even through large orchestral and vocal resources.

The solo writing, particularly the second section ("God and Father"), reminds me a bit of Yardumian, although less static, more purposeful. My favorite movement, the fourth ("Why do we deal treacherously"), sets off squibs of stretti and jazzy syncopations in the chorus against the soloist, who repeats the same tune throughout – the "answer" to the choral question: "Seek good, not evil, that ye may live." The movement pays tribute to Zaimont's skill not only in marshalling all her forces, but also in her handling of the solo repetition, which never sounds merely repetitive. Rather, we get a drama between chorus and solo, with the answer struggling for resolution and finally emerging from a choral disintegration into whispers.

The singers of the Ernst Senff Choir handle their role adequately. The English diction is a bit lazy, however, and this works to their detriment in the quick third movement, where the rhythm becomes very ragged indeed. No complaints about soloist Maddalena, and Schwarz delivers an exciting performance that I think gets to the essence of the work. He lets you know exactly how fine a piece it is. This leads to my biggest complaint of all. The disc presents only six of Zaimont's sixteen movements. On the one hand, I'm grateful for what I got, but why did I get only that? Zaimont's service seems to me, considering these excerpts, a major contribution not just to Jewish music, but to 20th-century choral music. It cries out for a complete recording.

A Woman of Valor, for string quartet and voice, strikes me as a lot looser structurally. It has an introduction which features a minor third as a kind of generating interval for the themes, but the piece as a whole meanders somewhat. I feel a bit churlish for pointing this out, because it is also very beautiful. Zaimont follows the turns of the text rather than finds a musical structure for it. Still, each section sings. I don't know why the looseness should bother me. After all, I adore Grieg. My niggling might arise simply from the work's placement on the program. The Sacred Service excerpts are a tough act to follow.

Zaimont takes a large artistic risk with Parable: A Tale of Abraham and Isaac. She invites comparison to two masterpieces by Benjamin Britten. The text combines the Brome mystery play of Abraham and Isaac, Wilfred Owen's "Parable of the Old Man and the Young," and the kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer of mourning. Britten, of course, set part of the mystery play in his Canticle II and the Owen in his War Requiem. Why anyone would knowingly do this to themselves, I haven't a clue. But Zaimont, to a very great extent, brings it off. Once again, the music illuminates the text, and the juxtaposition of various texts deepen the meaning of the central image. The mystery play takes Owen's "Abram," a symbol of dangerous self-righteousness, and gives him some humanity. Abram sacrifices his son, but he doesn't feel good about it. Nevertheless, the result is the same: "But the old man would not so, but slew his son, / And half the seed of Europe, one by one." At this m oment, a narrator recites the kaddish, presumably for Isaac, and the piece really takes off. Normally, I can't tolerate melodrama (words spoken to music – what's the point?). Here, it's beautiful and affecting. Perhaps the ritual nature of the words removes the curse from the technique. We get a benediction for the victim as we affirm the glory of God. Conceptually, the work tugs at you several different ways. The performance counts as my second-favorite on the CD. The choral work is more incisive, the soloists as expressive as any (particularly baritone Randall Scarlata as Abraham), and the ensemble crisp. Michael Brewer sorts out Zaimont's occasionally busy textures beautifully.

With texts drawn from various sources, mainly associated with the holiday Rosh Hashana, the Meditations at the Time of the New Year consists of two sections. The first, "Dawn," paints a quietly ecstatic picture of sunrise. The second, "Hope," begins with a bell-type tune and ends in a quiet blessing. The piece is scored for chorus, tubular bells, and glockenspiel. The percussion, delicately used, accents the choral music. Indeed, the chorus bears the brunt of the work, and the Meditations give us Zaimont's choral writing up close and personal. Zaimont makes no concessions to performing ease. In fact, the interaction between percussion and voices test almost cruelly the choir's ability to keep pitch. Yet the music rewards the effort. Zaimont writes tonally, but you really can't predict where she's going to end up harmonically. The "surprise" chord is as much a feature of her work (although in a different way) as it is in Fauré's. I hear some similarity to Copland's a cappella writing, but it's the resemblance between child and great-grandfather. Nick Strimple's Choral Society of Southern California gives a tremendous choral performance, with crisp diction, the sense that they know what they're singing about, and an heroic job of maintaining pitch.

I yield to no one in my admiration for Neil Levin's musicianship and scholarship, but his liner notes are largely irrelevant to the music on the CD. He's more interested in explaining Jewish theological concepts than in dealing with the music itself. I suspect his remarks will interest only a very few. Nevertheless, in all, a superb entry in Naxos' American Jewish Music series.

Copyright © 2006, Steve Schwartz