JUDITH LANG ZAIMONT: Sonata; Nocturne: La fin de siècle; A Calendar Set: 12 Virtuosic Preludes – Christopher Atzinger, piano – Naxos 8.559665, 65:55 ****:
“Art, Fire, Soul: Piano Works of JUDITH LANG ZAIMONT” [TrackList follows] Elizabeth Moak, piano – MSR Classics MS 1366 (2 discs), 79:57; 75:39 [Distr. by Albany] ****:
Many years ago, when I was working for the long-defunct The New Records, I enthusiastically reviewed a record by a composer unknown to me at the time but who was gaining a reputation. I was surprised that this up-and-coming artist wrote to me asking if I had any tips for furthering her career. At the time, I was mostly concerned about acquiring a career for myself and so had nothing to share with her. That up-and-coming artist was Judith Lang Zaimont, who seems to have done very well for herself without any special advocacy except her talent, which has ensured that her music is widely played and listened to today.
I was surprised to learn from the notes to these recordings that Zaimont started out as a solo and duo pianist, performing with her sister, recording for Golden Crest Records (remember them?) and even getting gigs on the Lawrence Welk and Mitch Miller Shows. If Zaimont is mostly known for her choral, chamber, and orchestral music, it’s because until the end of the 90s she composed most of her piano music for herself as the intended soloist. Perhaps that explains the very different nature of her Piano Sonata, completed in 2000, from that of the other pieces in both these collections. It’s big, bold, rangy work with something of an attitude, perhaps reminiscent of the muscular piano sonatas by Vincent Persichetti, though there is a bit of a hangover from the neo-Romantic style of her earlier music. There are passages of tenderness and emotional reprieve amidst the craggier passages. It certainly must be a bear to play, especially the blistering toccata-like finale. And like all of Zaimont’s piano music, it is beautifully, idiomatically written for the instrument.
Speaking of neo-Romanticism, that defines the Nocturne, one of Zaimont’s most widely performed works, which is her “personal valentine to the great pianist-composers of the Romantic Era.” A kind of fire-and-ice piece, its benign, unruffled opening prepares us not at all for the perfervid middle section.
The Calendar Set pieces, which appear on both these releases, are tonal, with a touch of modernist edginess here and there, but readily accessible in Zaimont’s earlier manner. The July prelude, “The Glorious Fourth!” briefly visits patriotic ditties, while the December prelude, “The Carols,” dallies more forthrightly with songs of the season. Again, these preludes recall similar collections written by Romantic composers, Tchaikovsky’s being the best known. Their subtitle is 12 Virtuosic Preludes, which is truth in advertising. In contradistinction to the modest, often anodyne piano writing in much of Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons, you’d better bring a pretty robust technique with you if you want to play the Calendar Set.
Some of the other works on the MSR Classics discs are more personal and intimate, including Zaimont’s takes on ragtime music; one of them is even titled Judy’s Rag—hey, why not play favorites with your own music, especially when you’re the intended performer? Among the pieces on Disc 2 of “Art, Fire, Soul” are others in which Zaimont lets her hair down, inviting pop-musical influences into her work to charming effect because she doesn’t defect entirely to the other camp. Instead, there is a successful merger of classical and pop styles here; at least I’m captivated and entertained.
So which collection to choose? I’m loathe to say that’s up to you, dear reader, but really about the only thing to choose between them is the far more extensive selection on the MSR album. Both Christopher Atzinger and Elizabeth Moak have the virtuoso chops to meet this music head on, and they also have an cultivated understanding of the different sides of Zaimont’s music—postmodernist, neo-Romanticist, pop-influenced as it is by turns. (Incidentally, from the It’s a Small World After All Department, both pianists studied at Peabody Conservatory.) Elizabeth Moak, who has lived with the music of Zaimont for years, is sometimes more impassioned, as in the December prelude of the Calendar Set; but this is not to suggest that Atzinger doesn’t have a viable approach as well. Some may prefer his relative restraint here and elsewhere. Both pianists are well recorded, the MSR recording being a bit mellower, rendered at a more comfortable remove.
Bottom line: if you want a very fine crash course in Zaimont’s piano music, Atzinger is your man. But if you’d like to experience just about all facets of the composer’s approach to music on her own instrument, spend a bit more on Elizabeth Moak’s collection and get the total package.
TrackList, MSR Classics:
Disc 1: Concert Pieces
Calendar Collection – Spring
March: The Winds Depart
April: The First Bird-song
May: The May-fly
The Moons Swim in Orbit
Calendar Collection – Summer
September: The Winds Arise
Wizards – Three Magic Masters
Spell CASTER (Rhetorical)
Spell WEAVER (Lyrical)
Magister SORCEROR (Energetic)
Calendar Collection – Autumn
October: Autumn Thoughts
November: Secret Thunder
Nocturne: La fin de siècle
CD 2 – Art, Fire, Soul:
A Calendar Set – 12 Virtuosic Preludes
January: “Whose morning drumbeat, following the sun, and keeping company
with the hours, circles the earth.” [Daniel Webster]
February: Palace of Ice
March: “The braggart March” [Robert Burns Wilson]
April: “You know how it is with an April day” [Robert Frost]
May: “As full of spirit as the month of May, and gorgeous” [William Shakespeare]
June: “Then, if ever, come perfect days” [James Russell Lowell]
July: The Glorious Fourth!
August: “Dry August and warm” [Thomas Tusser]
September: “Where blue is darkened on blueness
down the way Persephone goes just now
in first-frosted September” [D. H. Lawrence]
October: “The wind is rising, and the air is wild with leaves” [Humbert Wolfe]
November: “November’s sky is chill and drear” [Sir Walter Scott]
December: The Carols
Cortège for Jack
Jazz Waltz (from Suite Impressions)
American City: A Portrait of New York
Hitchin’ – A Travellin’ Groove
In My Lunchbox
The Banana Song
Dessert – Sugar Rush
Another volume of the recording legacy of Szigeti…