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Judith Lang ZAIMONT (b.1945)
Pure Colors

Wizards – Three Magic Masters (2003) [8:31]1
Astral ... a mirror life on the astral plane (2004) [8:54] 2
Virgie Rainey – Two Narratives for soprano, mezzo and piano (2002) [11:42] 3
Valse Romantique (1974) [4:29] 4
‘Tanya’ Poems (1999) [12:25] 5
‘Bubble-Up’ Rag: Concertpiece for Flute and Piano (2001) [9:32] 6
1 Young-Ah Tak (piano); 2 John Anderson (clarinet); 3 Wendy Zaro-Mullins (soprano); Jean del Santo (mezzo); Timothy Lovelace (piano); 4 Immanuel Davis (flute); 5 Tanya Remenikova (cello); 6 Immanuel Davis (flute); Nanette Kaplan Solomon (piano)
rec. Ted Mann Hall, University of Minnesota, 16-18 May 2005
ALBANY TROY785 [55:38]

To describe Judith Lang Zaimont as an ‘academic composer’ is fair and accurate provided that one intends the epithet to function simply as a means of pointing to the fact that she has been employed in academia throughout most of her working life. Raised in New York, she and her sister, Doris Lang Kosloff, gave piano-duo recitals, making their Carnegie Hall debut in 1965 and worked as a duo until 1967. Zaimont studied at Queens College, the Long Island Institute of Music and Columbia University. She went on to teach at the New York Community College, Adelphi University, Queens College, the Peabody Conservatory of Music and Hunter College, before being appointed Professor of Composition at the University of Minnesota in 1992, a post she held until her retirement in 2005. Indeed, the majority of the pieces recorded here were written for colleagues at the University of Minnesota and many of these performances are given by the artists responsible for the premieres of these compositions.

It would be quite wrong, however, to use the phrase ‘academic composer’ if, by its use, one intended that any of its pejorative associations should apply to Zaimont’s music. There is nothing dry or pedantic about her work; there is no sense that her compositions are technical exercises or that they exist merely for teaching purposes or as demonstrations of one or another theoretical concept. In fact her music – as I have already discovered when listening to a Naxos CD of work by her (see review) and a CD of her songs (see review) – is various and undogmatic, inventive and readily approachable, even if it also reveals her extensive technical knowledge.

The earliest work here, the 1975 Valse Romantique for solo flute is a relatively slight piece, though it has charm and elegance. It gets an expressive performance from Immanuel Davis, and the excellent recorded sound does full justice to the colours of his instrument, an 1866 Louis Lot #888. Played on a French-made instrument, and with a French title, Valse Romantique is more redolent of the salons of Paris than of the lecture halls of Minnesota!

The next piece, chronologically speaking, was written a full quarter of a century later – the ‘Tanya’ Poems of 1999. These paired works for solo cello were written for Tanya Remenikova, and here receive performances of some grandeur and power from their dedicatee. The two pieces take their titles from verse forms. The first is called ‘Couplet’ and is, unsurprisingly, constructed in a dualistic ‘rhyming’ fashion, with long held notes juxtaposed to triple-stop sonorities; the resulting dialogue is finely articulated by Remenikova. The second piece, Sestina, is in six sections, and is technically demanding – though its complexities clearly present no problems to Remenikova, who plays with great authority throughout, while also showing herself well able to respond to Sestina’s relatively light-hearted conclusion. It is hard to imagine that the composer could have hoped for any better performance than this.

‘Bubble-Up’ Rag, for flute and piano, is one of several ‘classical’ versions of the rag that Zaimont has written over the years – following on, for example, from the piano pieces Reflective Rag and Judy’s Rag (both 1974; a flute and piano arrangement of Reflective Rag was also made in 2001), and (also for piano) Hesitation Rag (1998). ‘Bubble-Up’ Rag is a delightful jeux d’esprit, a fitting contrast to the heavier emotions of the ‘Tanya’ Poems which precede it and a thoroughly fitting conclusion to the programme. It is interesting to read in the composer’s notes that the piece was written "during the morning and evening rush-hours (!), with its original tempo clocked up to the car’s turn-signal beat"! Zaimont’s music is often characterised by the vivaciousness of her rhythms and this piece is wonderfully light but urgent in its rhythms. It deserves a place in the received canon of pieces for this combination of instruments.

The soprano Wendy Zaro-Mullins and the mezzo Jean del Santo, ably supported by pianist Timothy Lovelace, give a forceful and entertaining - if occasionally slightly strident - performance of Judith Lang Zaimont’s two settings of words by the Mississippian writer Eudora Welty, from her short-story collection The Golden Apples (1949) – a source not made altogether clear by the booklet notes - nor are texts provided, unfortunately. The first setting interweaves the two voices quite beautifully in music of considerable poignancy, the second is splendidly comic and alert as the words relate Virgie Rainey’s struggles with the piano, with which she has a decidedly troubled relationship – there are some mock-clumsy evocations of Beethoven and some fine moments engagingly poised on the boundary between the comic and the melodramatic.

Wizards, subtitled Three Magic Masters has a non-musical programme – picturing three different Wizards – but I am inclined to regard it more as something that was useful to the composer than as something about which the listener need bother himself or herself very much. For the listener what perhaps matters more is the music’s fusion of passion and consideration, its simultaneous appeal to mind and heart. From the opening, largely chordal section, to the arpeggios of its central section and the furious hammer-blows of the third, Wizards has a persuasive logic – both structural and emotional – which needs little support from its non-musical programme, especially when played with the utter assurance and conviction which Young-Ah Tak brings to it and when recorded as clearly and vividly as it is here. Wizards was originally commissioned as a required piece for the San Antonio International Piano Competition in 2003. But it is much more than ‘just’ a test piece, and deserved to find more performers and audiences.

Astral has a numerological-cum-new age programme that leaves me rather cold, but I like the music, a kind of extended exploration, an arc from low to high, but with assorted asides and digressions, through what the composer well describes as a "slow registral upcurve uncovering the clarinet’s registers one by one". Again the rhythms are compelling and the way the work milks chromatic tensions produces some exquisite effects. It gets a fine performance from its dedicatee, John Anderson.

This is a rewarding fifty-five minutes’ worth of music varied in instrumentation and idiom, but consistently inventive and accomplished, the work of a composer who deserves to be more widely known in Europe.

Glyn Pursglove


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