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CD Reviews

Music Library Reviews: Judith Lang Zaimont and Vivaldi

In this series, Classical 91.7's music librarian Chris Hathaway reviews new additions to our ever-growing CD library. This month, Chris reviews the piano music of Judith Lang Zaimont (some of it new) and a captivating new recording of Vivaldi concertos.

JUDITH LANG ZAIMONT: Piano Sonata (1999-2000). Calendar Collection (1976): Spring, Summer, Autumn.  Jupiter’s Moons (2000).  Wizards – Three Magic Masters (2003). A Calendar Set: 12 Virtuosic Preludes (1974-75).  Cortège for Jack (2000). Jazz Waltz (from Suite Impressions, 1966).  American City: Portrait of New York (1957/2010).  Hitchin’ – A Travelin’ Groove (2007).  In My Lunchbox (2003).  Hesitation Rag (1998). Reflective Rag (1975).  Judy’s Rag (1974).  Serenade (2008). Elizabeth Moak, piano.  MSR Classics 1366: two CDs (under the title Art Fire Soul).

This collection of piano pieces by Judith Lang Zaimont ranges from the Sonata, finished at the end of the last century, to the precocious American City: Portrait of New York, initially written at age twelve and touched up a little two years ago.  Part of the 1957 manuscript of the repeated-note-based Rush Hour is reproduced in the booklet accompanying the discs.  There are short pieces and large-scale works, including a few ragtime numbers. 

The most imposing piece is the three-movement Sonata. The first movement, Ricerca — which might translate as investigation, quest, research or fieldwork; or even as some kind of free wandering—sounds like an improvisation, and is full of ideas and varieties of textures and dynamics.  It gets more interesting toward the end, and the style is a mix of freewheeling counterpoint and pianistic homophony, with the latter winning out as a pure major chord is repeated, gradually diminishing in volume over a long pedal point, returning to an introspective pianissimo and a backward glance at the piece’s syncopated beginnings.    It’s a long coda, but the major chord has the last word. 

An ambivalence toward minor and major modes defines the beginning of the second movement (Canto), with the style of the first movement almost returning in a gigue-like secondary section.  Zaimont is still making ricercars as she explores various shadings of piano and pianissimo, alternating aggressive writing that seems faintly reminiscent of Prokofiev with “dreaming with the pedal down”, to steal Hubert Parry’s phrase about Schumann.  There is a reference to the slow movement of Beethoven’s Pathétique sonata, with passing tones added, in the midst of all this dreaming.  Pianist Elizabeth Moak consistently responds to the dynamic and coloristic aspects of this music.

The third movement is called Impronta digitale (Fingerprint) and is in the style of a toccata.  The sound of a virtuoso improvisation seems to mark a unity of mind and spirit between composer and executant. 

The earlier Calendar Collection of 1976 and the Calendar Set: Twelve Virtuosic Preludes, finished a year earlier, show Zaimont as a consummately gifted and inventive miniaturist.  In April: The First Bird-song of Calendar Collection, she ends the piece in near-silence; she ends The May-fly from the same collection abruptly — a wonderful touch.  All of the pieces in Calendar Collection are very short pieces—the longest is two and a half minutes—and each is succinct.  August is in a different, more chordal and hymnlike style than the other pieces; but here, as in the others, Zaimont is interested in color and shading.  Elizabeth Moak is a sympathetic interpreter of all this. 

A Calendar Set: Twelve Virtuosic Preludes are more elemental and are tours de force of brilliant tone-painting.  These pieces, even more than the recent Sonata, seem to define Judith Zaimont’s essential piano style.  January makes an immediate and forceful impression, ending quietly with the pianist reaching into the soundboard and doing harp-like glissandi on the strings.  February is a brilliantly atmospheric study in the use of ostinatos.  All of the twelve movements are different, and explore different aspects of pianistic writing.  Some, like March, are frankly symphonic in scope and suggest an affinity for larger forms in the context of a short character piece.  May is an unshackled effusion of exuberance; June is pure poetry, with mezza voce melodic lines amid arabesques alternating with hymnlike chordal episodes.  July is an asymmetrical romp with hints of patriotic tunes which almost elude the listener.  This isn’t Ives—but it also isn’t Gottschalk.  August is an almost Chopinesque cantabile, though unmistakably “contemporary” in sound.  September and October are pure pianistic exuberance. November is evocatively bare-textured with some wonderful chordal writing thrown in.   December, the longest of this set, is bell-like and forceful with a quiet ending.

The earlier American City: Portrait of New York, recorded here for the first time, begins with a first movement based on very rapid repeated eighth-notes and frequent expansions and distortions of the rhythm.  The booklet describes the recently-published work’s original five movements as “almost entirely as originally composed”—which is remarkable, since Judy Lang—as she signed herself on the first manuscript page—was only twelve at the time.  An extra movement, ‘Scrapers (the next-to-last movement) was added in 2010.   The original suite won New York and national first prizes in the National Federation of Music Clubs’ competition in 1957, and Judy performed the piece at that organization’s convention in Washington, D.C.  Ms. Zaimont re-discovered the score two years ago and decided to bring it back to life.  ‘Scrapers sounds more like Judith Zaimont than Judy Lang, but it does add balance to the suite and provides an effective lead-in to the toccata finale called Garment Factory—a perpetual motion-type toccata.

Of the miniatures, the most recent—Cortège for Jack of two years ago—is a tribute to a fellow composer, Jack Beeson.  It was written in one day—June 6, 2010—”virtually as an act of automatic writing”, says Ms. Zaimont.  It is almost a light-hearted piece but in a wistful vein, the relaxed and slow three-to-a-bar being an atypical funeral procession.  Elizabeth Moak is the original interpreter of this piece.

For this reviewer, Judy’s Rag is the most captivating of the shorter pieces.  It has immense vitality, and Ms. Moak plays it as if she had written it herself.


VIVALDI: Concerto in F, op. 10/1 (RV. 433), La Tempesta di Mare.  Concerto in g minor, op. 10/2 (RV. 439), La NotteMatthias Maute, recorder; with Rebel conducted by Jörg-Michael Schwarz.   Sonata à 4, Al Santo Sepolcro, RV. 130.  Schwarz and Rebel.  Concerto in D, op. 10/3 (RV. 428), Il Gardellino.  Maute, sixth flute; with Schwarz and Rebel.  Concerto in G, op. 10/4 (RV. 435). Maute, transverse flute; with Schwarz and Rebel.  Concerto for strings and continuo in g minor, RV. 157. Schwarz and Rebel.  Concerto in F, op. 10/5 (RV. 434).  Concerto in G, op. 10/6 (RV. 437). Maute, recorder; with Schwarz and Rebel.  Bridge 9377.

Vivaldi's Venetian DreamsRebel has more variety of instrumental color than most period instrument groups, or most string groups for that matter.  Vibrato is not “slapped on” in obligatory fashion, as composer Ernst Bacon put it long ago in his book Words on Music; but neither is it eschewed.  The playing has immense vitality and dynamism, and Maute is a stellar and agile player.  From the opening of Tempesta di Mare, it’s apparent that something extraordinary is happening.  Maute’s approach to La Notte is even more coloristic and expressive.  His scalewise runs, non-legato and in perfect unison with the highly articulate violins, are electrifying; in the slow movement, the accompanying group plays entirely without vibrato and sounds like a consort of viols.  In the slow bridge to the last movement, the strings change their sound—-mostly without vibrato and quite subdued, leaving the recorder in the foreground. 

Maute plays piccolo (“sixth flute”) in Il Gardellino (The Goldfinch), effectively using flutter-tongue effects in the first movement.  He turns to the mellower transverse flute—”German flute” in eighteenth-century British usage—for op. 10/4.  In the second movement of this concerto, a chamber organ is introduced (partnering with a lute) as a continuo instrument—introducing a more “sustained-tone” element into the instrumental palette.  The organ stays through the finale.

The op. 10/5 recorder concerto gets a more legato, more lyrical treatment than most performers are wont to give it.  The variety of string tone imparted by Rebel almost gives one the impression that there are more wind instruments at play than the recorder and the continuo organ (again, collaborating with the lute in filling out the instrumental texture).  The atmosphere of smooth lyricism is shunted aside, but not quite dispelled, in the scherzando-like finale.

Maute’s lyrical virtuosity is especially telling in the slow movement of op. 10/6.  The strings give him a lovely complement, contrasting the smooth arpeggiated extemporizations of the lute with the mostly detached articulation of the upper strings.  The finale is some of the best of his agile virtuosity.

The string pieces included in this collection are very different.  The evocative Al Santo Sepolcro begins with a crescendo that is built in blocks of instrumental color, from the senza vibrato lower strings at the beginning; then it reverts to a more subdued tone, leading to an expressive first violin solo.  This gives way to a less subdued but no less intense Allegro.  The g-minor concerto (RV. 157) has a different kind of gravitas about it, the first movement starting out dancelike and ends on a more subdued tone, made more beautiful by Rebel’s exquisite staggered release.  The “dig-in” style of playing, particularly of the lower strings, in the last movement is electric.