Judith Lang ZAIMONT (b.1945)
String Quartet 'The Figure' (2007) [17:10]
*ZONES (Piano Trio no.2) (1994) [29:18]
Astral...a Mirror Life on the Astral Plane, for solo viola (2004) [12:56]
+Serenade, for piano trio (2006/2007) [5:16]
Harlem Quartet: *Ilmar Gavilán (violin), +Melissa White (violin), Juan-Miguel Hernandez (viola), *+Paul Wiancko (cello)
*+Awadagin Pratt (piano)
rec. Recital Hall, Performing Arts Center, Purchase College, State University of New York, 13-16 December 2010. DDD
NAVONA RECORDS NV 5846 [64:40]

This latest disc from Navona of music by American composer Judith Lang Zaimont follows on the heels of last year's release by Naxos of a CD of her orchestral music. That was rather cursorily dismissed in this review, but Zaimont deserves better than that, and these chamber works may be adduced to argue that the general European neglect of her music is quite unjustified.

Altogether around ten CDs devoted entirely to Lang Zaimont's music have been released over the last twenty years, and two more are due for release on MSR Classics in 2011, according to the composer. ZONES has been recorded before, appearing on Arabesque (CD Z6683) in 1997 with the Piano Trio no.1. Serenade is also available on a Navona Records sampler released shortly after this album (NV5851). It is the same recording, but rubs shoulders there with various other under-exposed composers currently under Navona's wing. Otherwise these are premiere recordings.

Lang Zaimont's String Quartet 'The Figure' is divided into two movements of equal length, 'In Shadow' and 'In Bright Light'. The subtitle refers to a three-part figure at the beginning of the work which gives rise to all the other material. The first movement is the more dramatic, the second the more lyrical, but otherwise both sections are fairly similar, by turn ruminative and vivacious, in both cases darker and less contrastive than the section titles indicate, but no less productive for it.

No reason is given in the notes for the complete capitalisation of ZONES, the composer's second Piano Trio - the reference is to zones, with no acronym implicated. The three movements are entitled 'Cold', 'Warm' and 'Temperate', which Lang Zaimont characterises respectively as "dark and tempestuous", "harmonically rich, layered and lyric" and "mordant, agitato, celebratory." This is, without question, a piano trio of the old school, and it is fair to say that Lang Zaimont's music does seem to come from another time - the first half of the 20th century, in most cases. Though some critics, as in the link above, will consider it old hat for that reason, audiences are unlikely to agree, and these pieces may just as validly be thought of as original works in a mainly late-Romantic idiom that had hitherto stayed unwritten. Why not create them now, if there are audiences for them? Certainly ZONES is a fine work, containing much imaginative, stimulating, beautiful music, eventually coming to a very satisfying, appropriately warming conclusion.

Serenade was originally written for solo piano "one rainy day in March 2006 as an offering to cheer up an ailing family member." The work is melodically and harmonically very straightforward, with the piano part in this arrangement for trio restricted to a recursive, gentle chordal accompaniment. Short and simple, but lyrical, restful and more wistful than might be supposed from the circumstances of its genesis.

Astral...a Mirror Life on the Astral Plane is a peculiar title; according to Lang Zaimont's description the piece "slowly tracks the spirit's elevation through eleven stages from expressive contemplation through unease and turbulence to final arrival and affirmation", with eleven having a numerological significance. If that sounds a bit airy, the music is not and will surely find wide approval, though there is a strange twist in store right at the end, as the soloist is required to sing or hum along, "drawing the entire musical journey inward to the same unison pitch as the starting note" - rather superfluously, it might be said. The composer describes this as an eight-minute piece, but Hernandez takes thirteen - a discrepancy presumably accounted for by the fact that some alterations were made to the original version for solo clarinet.

The multi-ethnic Harlem Quartet and Awadagin Pratt give expressive, meticulous readings of this music that draw upon their considerable chamber performance and recording experience.

The disc case is the usual thing from Navona - made of card, with the basic details printed onto it, including a handy one or two line evocative description of each piece. The booklet proper has been digitised and put on the CD-ROM section of the disc, which is perhaps a little annoying for those who prefer to keep their music and computer separate, but this one is an improvement on several recent releases by Navona in that there is enough information on the case for general use, once the booklet has been read through once. CD-ROM 'extras' include ringtones and desktop wallpaper to match the case design, for those who like that sort of thing. The complete scores to Astral and Serenade have been thoughtfully included, and the digital booklet further contains examples from the scores of the other two works.

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Fine work, containing much imaginative, stimulating, beautiful music.