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Judith Lang ZAIMONT (b.1945)
The Vocal-Chamber Art

Greyed Sonnets (1975) [13:13]1
Chansons Nobles et Sentimentales (1974) [12:50]2
Songs of Innocence (1974) [1974] [10:36]3
Two Songs for soprano and harp [1978] [10:14]4
The Magic World (1979-80) [24:59]5
1 Elena Tyminski (soprano); Judith Lang Zaimont (piano)
2 Charles Bressler (tenor); Judith Lang Zaimont (piano)
3 Elena Tyminski (soprano); Price Brown (tenor); Patricia Spencer (flute); Barbara Bogatin (cello); Nancy Allen (harp)
4 Berenice Bramson (soprano); Sara Cutler (harp)
5 David Arnold (baritone); Zita Zohar (piano); Jonathan Haas (percussion)
rec. 1977-1983. ADD
LEONARDA LE 343 [72:01]

 

My first substantial encounter with the music of Judith Lang Zaimont came with the CD devoted to her in Naxos’s series from the Milken Archive of Jewish Music (see review). I particularly enjoyed some of the writing for solo voice on that CD, so I was pleased to find myself listening to this collection, carrying the title ‘The Vocal-Chamber Art’ and made up of five groups of songs. All were written between 1974 and 1980, and all appear to have been previously issued on LP: Chansons Nobles et Sentimentales, Two Songs for Soprano and Harp and The Magic World all appeared on the Leonarda label, Greyed Sonnets and Songs of Innocence on the Golden Crest label.

The earliest cycles here are Chansons Nobles et Sentimentales and Songs of Innocence. Chansons sets five French texts, one each by Baudelaire and Rimbaud framing three by Verlaine. Some of Zaimont’s accompaniments are busy, as in ‘Claire de Lune’ (Verlaine), the central song of the cycle; others are sparse, as in ‘Chanson d’Automne’ (Verlaine), the second song. In ‘Claire de Lune’ there is, fittingly enough, a glance at Debussy. The fourth song, a setting of Verlaine’s ‘Dans l’interminable ennui de la pleine’ makes intriguing and effective use of the plucking of the piano strings and in the final song, Rimbaud’s ‘Départ’, an insistent two-note descending pattern on the piano complements a bleak vocal line.

‘Songs of Innocence’ sets four poems by Blake – ‘Introduction’ (to the ‘Songs of Innocence’), ‘The Garden of Love’ (from ‘Songs of Experience’), ‘I asked a thief to steal me a peach’ and ‘How sweet I roam’d’. The two outer songs are duets for soprano and tenor (with some effective imitative writing, especially in ‘Introduction’) accompanied by flute, harp and cello. The second song is given to soprano and the same instrumental forces; the third is for tenor and harp alone. In the last, marked by some lovely interplay between the two voices, a surprise is sprung when the setting closes, with a sudden increase in tempo, by returning – musically and verbally – to the last two lines of ‘Introduction’. The cycle is knitted together and an astute point is made about the ambiguity even of that first poem. Even that first song involves a movement (a degradation?) from wordless music, to music with words and, finally to the written word (without music). It is not by accident that the child speaker of that poem declares (my italics) "I stain’d the water clear".

Greyed Sonnets sets five poems by women poets - not all of them sonnets in the modern sense of the word. Three are by Edna St. Vincent Millay and one each by Sara Teasdale and Christina Rossetti. All are love poems – poems, though, of love in the shadow of pain and death, of unhappy memories and of the desire to forget. The central song of the five is Millay’s sonnet ‘A Season’s Song’, in which Zaimont uses some quite complex cross-rhythms. It is framed, at beginning and end of the cycle by songs expressive of the feelings of women whose loves have died. The interaction of seasonal cycles and the non-renewing pattern of individual human life and death on earth govern this subtle cycle, a cycle which once again confirms the astuteness of Zaimont’s eye for suitable poetic texts.

In her Two Songs for soprano and harp Zaimont sets texts by Adrienne Rich (‘At Dusk in Summer’) and Thomas Hardy (‘The Ruined Maid’). The harp is no mere accompanist, in any limiting sense, here. There are extended solo passages for the instrument, some of them rhapsodic, some of them fierce and clipped. The writing for the voice is demanding - and is well handled here by Beatrice Bramson though her Wessex accents may, inevitably, be a little less than wholly convincing to English ears! The setting of Hardy’s poem is particularly effective, especially in the way it distinguishes the two voices of Hardy’s dialogue, the "raw" country girl visiting town and her old friend from the country, now dressed in all the finery of the town, the ‘reward’ of being "ruin’d". This is an attractive piece, on a par with more familiar settings of Hardy by English composers.

The works discussed so far are, musically speaking, very much outgrowths of the European tradition. With The Magic World Zaimont enters a more distinctively ‘American’ world. The texts – there are six songs - are all taken from American Indian sources. Though there are only a few musical borrowings from Amerindian sources - the vocal phrasing largely remains ‘western’ - Zaimont creates an overall idiom quite different from that in the earlier pieces on this CD. This is partly due to the battery of percussion instruments, which are wielded by the singer as well as by the percussionist; the piano strings are also struck with mallets at one point. The results are powerful and striking - no pun intended. It would be wrong to talk, in The Magic World, of singer and accompanists – the voice is one of several ‘voices’ in a complex musical texture, rich in evocative sounds. The third of the six songs is a ‘Storm Song’ – "The whirlwind! The whirlwind! / Cover the earth with great rains, / Cover the earth with lightnings, / Let thunder drum over all the earth, / Let thunder drum over all the six directions of the earth". Zaimont’s music does it musical justice. An interesting and distinctive song-cycle.

Some performances – inevitably – are better than others. I was particularly taken by the soprano of Berenice Bramson and the baritone of David Arnold. But none of the performances are less than adequate. The sound quality is a little dated, but is never a serious liability. Full texts and, where necessary, translations are provided.

Enjoyable, intelligent music; word-setting which demonstrates a consistent perceptiveness as regards the meaning and shape of the words, without ever forfeiting the proper liberties of the composer. If you like modern song, this is a CD well worth hearing.


Glyn Pursglove

 



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