Judith Lang ZAIMONT (b. 1945)
Sonata (2000) [29.37]
Nocturne - La fin de siècle (1979) [6.34]
A Calendar Set (1978) [29.32]
Christopher Atzinger (piano)
rec. Rolston Recital Hall, Banff, 16-19 October 2010
Zaimont is one of those composers who makes use of the works of earlier composers to build up a montage of quotations. The effect is sometimes disconcert: her orchestral work Ghosts, also available on Naxos, begins with such a literal quotation from Britten’s Serenade that one is startled when the voice of Peter Pears does not chime in with “The splendour falls on castle walls”. The booklet notes with that release fail to explain the significance of the quotations she employs. The same is true of the issue under consideration here. The Piano Sonata contains a substantial meditation, at first literal and then elaborated, upon Beethoven’s Pathètique Sonata. The booklet notes by the pianist on this recording make no mention of the fact; neither do they explain what particular relevance it might have to Zaimont’s music. Indeed, Christopher Atzinger states quite specifically that the music of the sonata is “decisively tonal throughout”. This statement is somewhat misleading if the listener anticipates a work in neo-romantic or deliberately diatonic style. What we have instead is a somewhat Prokofiev-like synthesis of a decidedly percussive style with more avant-garde elements. These even have overtones of early Stockhausen employing extremes of the keyboard and quite violent juxtapositions of register and dynamics.
This is not to say that the music is forbidding or unapproachable. Once the listener overcomes the expectations aroused by the description in the booklet, it is indeed quite enjoyable. The very opening of the sonata brings a series of unrelated chords not a million miles away from late Debussy. The later elaboration of the material is carefully worked out; but all the excellent if somewhat strenuous playing of Atzinger cannot disguise the fact that the most interesting passages occur when the composer quotes from others, and that Zaimont’s own writing lacks a distinctive profile. Knowledge that the composer is prone to use quotations even leads one to half-grab at references that may not have been intended. In the first movement of the Piano Sonata, is she at 6:11 meaning to hint at No place like home, and if so to what purpose? Similarly the quotation from Beethoven which finally emerges at 8:00 in the slow movement has been teasingly anticipated at so many points beforehand that on first hearing one is aware of a nagging sense of familiarity. On a second hearing one is tickled by the expectation that the theme one now expects will finally be revealed. What it all comes down to is that quotation from other composers is a dangerous device. When it is used to subvert one’s impressions - as in Berio’s Sinfonia - it can be amusing and stimulating by turns, but it can, all too easily, lead the listener into an attempt to ‘spot the tune’ and overlook the original material which surrounds it. It took this listener three hearings to overcome this tendency and enjoy Zaimont’s writing for its own sake. Once that is achieved the result is not unpleasurable. The final Toccata is a brilliant tour de force and here the references to Schumann, Ravel and Prokofiev which Atzinger cites are not so obtrusive.
The Nocturne which follows the sonata is described by Zaimont as a “personal valentine [sic] to the great pianist-composers of the Romantic Era.” The slow outer sections are nicely atmospheric, but the more troubled central section seems somewhat less appropriate to the feelings that the composer is seeking to express. The twelve miniatures, one for each month of the year, that make up A calendar set are each illustrated by subtitles or poetic quotations. The work, originally written for the composer’s own use in recitals, was only published in 2005. The programmatic intent of the music gives plentiful opportunity for contrast, and Zaimont eagerly seizes on these. Once again two of the movements feature quotations: July¸ subtitled The Glorious Fourth!, contains references to a number of American patriotic pieces including Sousa and Yankee doodle, while December includes hints of several Christmas carols. The ‘braggart’ march theme which opens March also sounds as though it should be a quotation from something else, as do passages in May. This highlights another danger of Zaimont’s ‘pastiche’ technique, which has the unfortunate side-effect of leading the listener to suspect quotation when none may have been intended. August, with a quote from Thomas Tusser’s “Dry August and warm,” is a lovely little meditative piece which builds to an emotional climax.
Zaimont’s music has been featured on a number of Naxos releases - not only that of orchestral music to which reference was made in the opening paragraph of this review - and those who have already discovered the composer will need no incentive to invest in this disc. The music is superbly played and very well recorded.  

Paul Corfield Godfrey 

Those who have already discovered the composer will need no incentive to invest in this disc.