ZAIMONT Music for Piano Solo (3 CD’s)

ZAIMONT Art Fire Soul  ● Elizabeth Moak (pn) ● MSR Classics 1366 (2 CDs: 79:57; 75:39)
Sonata. Calendar Collection: Spring, Summer, Autumn. Jupiter’s Moons. Wizards: Three Magic Masters. Nocturne: La Fin de Siècle. A Calendar Set. Cortège for Jack. Jazz Waltz. American City: Portrait of New York. Hitchin’. In my Lunchbox. Hesitation Rag. Reflective Rag. Judy’s Rag. Serenade

ZAIMONT Sonata. A Calendar SetNocturne: Le Fin de Siècle ● Christopher Atzinger (pn) ● NAXOS 8.559665 (65:55)

ZAIMONT Callisto—Music for Piano ● Joanne Polk (pn) ● ALBANY TROY617 (62:56)
Sonata. Jupiter’s Moons. Nocturne: La Fin de Siècle. Hesitation Rag

Judith Lang Zaimont, now in her late 60s, has been a consistently and productively active presence on the American compositional scene since the 1960s, and I have followed her work—though not exhaustively—from almost as far back. She has won a generous share of awards and enjoyed a series of academic affiliations, notably on the faculties of the Peabody Conservatory, Adelphi University, and the University of Minnesota. She now lives in Arizona, devoting her time largely to composing. Although I have found her work collectively to be of variable interest, it has always impressed me with both excellent craftsmanship and a basic sincerity of expression, devoid of “glitz” or mere cleverness. Her basic stylistic roots are in a traditional 20th-century language, though updated in some pieces with sounds and techniques that entered the modern vocabulary after mid-century. But nothing I have heard of hers ever violates sound musical judgment or good taste. But what I don’t hear is a “personal stamp,” a recognizable voice that proclaims her identity, or a sense that she is sharing her deepest personal feelings. However, while such a recognizable identity often enables listeners to feel “closer” to a composer, it is not a prerequisite of artistic importance.

A pianist herself, Zaimont has composed a good deal of music for the keyboard. Her piano music represents much of her strongest work, and some pieces—such as A Calendar Set—have attained a well-earned popularity. The three releases discussed here comprise the vast majority of her music for piano solo, with some pieces—the Piano Sonata, for example—addressed on each recording, making comparisons inevitable. Although Polk’s release doesn’t include A Calendar Set, an Arabesque disc, entitled “Zones” (Z6683), features her performance of that work. In addition I have a Leonarda LP that includes Gary Steigerwalt’s rendition of A Calendar Set. I will say at the outset that making these comparisons was the most difficult aspect of this review, as all three pianists are extraordinarily fine, and all three recordings are distinguished by performances that are both sympathetic and brilliantly virtuosic. Though one pianist may seem to grasp some pieces better, another captures some of the others more effectively. Consumers’ decisions will be based on factors other than excellence of execution. Mississippi-born Elizabeth Moak has been performing Zaimont’s music for decades, and built her doctoral work around it;  her two-CD set—the culmination of her years of study and performance—is, of course, both the most comprehensive recording and the most expensive one, and includes the vast majority of her music for piano solo. Atzinger’s on Naxos features the most important pieces, and is budget-priced. Polk’s on Albany also offers a fine selection, and is full-priced.

Zaimont’s most ambitious work for piano solo is the Sonata (1999-2000). This half-hour-long work in three movements covers a good deal of expressive territory within the generally modern-traditionalist language. In ways that are hard to articulate, the work doesn’t have the “feel” of a sonata—a sense of businesslike goal-directedness propelled by an individual treatment of familiar formal designs. The first movement begins and ends atmospherically, and might even be described as improvisatory. However, the central portion boasts a strong assertive thrust—propulsive and quite challenging for the pianist. The second movement, which is described as a reflection on the slow movement of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” Sonata, is really much more than that. Again, much of the music is ruminative and improvisatory in character, although “scherzoso” portions of the movement provide considerable technical challenges for the pianist. The third movement is rapid and toccata-like for the most part, although this is relieved by some slower passages. All in all, the multiple tempos within each movement make following the basic structure only by ear a little difficult. But on the whole, this is a challenging and provocative work, and one that rewards multiple rounds of concentrated listening. As suggested earlier, all three pianists do more than justice to the work. If forced to select a preference, I would probably choose Joanne Polk’s as the one with the greatest technical assurance.

The other “major” work is the cycle of twelve pieces, A Calendar Set, which occupied the composer on and off throughout the 1970s, and was her first extended work for piano. As its title suggests, these are twelve character pieces, each associated with one of the months of the year. These subjective associations create an attractive, evocative, and convincing conceit. (More on this later.) Two of the pieces—July and December—are quodlibets that ingeniously weave familiar tunes (patriotic for the former, carols for the latter) into a subtle texture. These pieces are more traditional in style than the Sonata, with undisguised roots in the romantic piano repertoire represented by Chopin, Scriabin and company. I have been familiar with these pieces since shortly after they were completed, and I must say, they appealed to me upon initial exposure, and continue to do so today. Again the performances are all extremely good, but if forced to select one I would probably go for Moak, although Atzinger is more effective in some of the pieces, Polk in some of the others, and Steigerwalt in still others.

Interestingly, during the period when Zaimont was working on A Calendar Set, one of her publishers suggested that she compose another set based on the same months-of-the-year conceit, but designed to be somewhat easier to play, and with explicit pedagogical intentions. She fulfilled this request with Calendar Collection—twelve pieces that are just as appealing to hear as the concert set, and reward serious musical consideration. Moak includes nine of the twelve on her recorded recital. Let me note here that while a good deal of the music included on Moak’s program was composed with pedagogical intentions and limited technical demands in mind, none of this music is any the less interesting for it, nor are the results so elementary as to be identifiable as student fare.

Jupiter’s Moons is a group of six short pieces, composed in 2000. Each of the pieces draws upon both mythological and geophysical associations from which to anchor its character. At this point I must voice a reservation I noted in my last review of music by this composer: Zaimont has a propensity for fanciful titles, presumably to offer gentle suggestions to guide the listeners’ imaginations. However, with some exceptions—most notably, A Calendar Set—I find these titles to be more of a bother than they are worth. In most cases I find myself looking in vain for connections between the music and the images suggested. Rather than facilitating a grasp of the expressive intentions of the music, for me they are more of a hindrance.

The six pieces identified as Jupiter’s Moons generally inhabit a stylistic realm that most would term “impressionistic,” with some reminiscences of Debussy, although the first one avoids both tonality and meter. Each piece is both evocative and engaging, and as a group they are delightful. But instead of movement titles such as “The Moons Swim in Orbit, “Europa,” “Leda,” “Io,” etc., I would have been content with “Six Preludes,” period. And I have no principled objection to fanciful titles in general; but the associations must be universal enough to engender spontaneous confirmation in the listener—otherwise they are distractions. I find that Polk’s presentations of these pieces are somewhat more exciting and dynamic than Moak’s. If I have a criticism of the latter’s generally fine performances, it is that they tend to be a little understated and bland—especially the more difficult pieces. On the other hand, Moak is somewhat more effective in clarifying the textures, while Polk can sometimes be a little murky.

Wizards is a nine-minute piece in a single movement, composed in 2003. It is a fantasy that presumes to delineate the features of three distinct “Magic Masters.” The style is somewhat reminiscent of late Scriabin, although there is some hand-damping of the strings. Aiming to convey a sense of magic and mystery, the music is again quite challenging for the performer.

Nocturne: La Fin de Siècle dates from 1979, and is another one of Zaimont’s most popular and frequently-performed pieces. It is also another whose title—or in this case, subtitle—is both limiting and misleading, explicitly suggesting a work of retrospection—a venture into the language of a bygone era. But again, this seven-minute piece is much more than that: For one thing, it is no more alien to Zaimont’s natural language than are many of these other works, its agitated central section embracing a harmonic language that evolved decades after “the turn of the century;” for another, it is a superb and often beautiful work in its own right—not in the least hackneyed or pre-occupied with retrospection, but, rather, spontaneous and improvisatory, although the listener who makes too much of the sub-title may readily overlook its breadth and depth of expression. The Nocturne is included on all three discs discussed here—as well as on the Leonarda LP—and all four performances are excellent. Here I found it simply impossible to choose one as “the best.”

The remainder of this review is devoted to shorter, less ambitious pieces, all but one of which is found on only the Moak disc. Zaimont is fond of the “ragtime” genre, and has written several. Her Hesitation Rag is the most ambitious of those included here. Composed in 1998, the six-minute piece is quite an elaborate concert work, maintaining the essential elements of the genre, while reaching beyond its limited associations. It is included on Polk’s CD as well: She provides a fuller, more sonorous rendition than Moak, whose is more delicate. The other two rags—Reflective Rag and Judy’s Rag—date from the 1970s. They are shorter and less ambitious, but no less delightful and engaging—and are worked out with considerable subtlety.

American City: Portrait of New York is a group of six short pieces that purport to evoke various images associated with New York City. What is most striking and remarkable about them is that five of the six were composed in 1957—when Zaimont was 12! If the prospective listener anticipates being called upon to indulge the composer’s shameless vanity, that listener is entirely wrong. These are mature, sophisticated, entertaining, and pianistically challenging vignettes that in no way betray their youthful origins, and won a number of auspicious awards at the time they were composed. Although she added the movement “‘Scrapers” in 2010, the composer insists that the five early pieces remain essentially untouched (the few subsequent modifications are indicated in the program notes).

“Jazz Waltz” is a short movement from a 1996 work called Suite Impressions. It is a pleasantly stylish piece, inventive both melodically and harmonically.

In My Lunchbox (2003)is a suite of five short pieces, with individual titles such as “Swimming Tuna,” “Celery Stalks,” “Dessert—Sugar Rush,” and other items typically found in a child’s lunchbox. It is designed for 11-year-olds who have been playing for at least four years. While its pedagogical intentions are explicit, and the pieces are more manageable technically, they are musically interesting enough to engage the attention of young pianists and those for whom they play.

Serenade was composed on a single day in 2006. Zaimont calls it a homage to big band music and the filmscores of the 1940s, but I do not hear these associations at all. What I do hear is an irresistibly lovely six-minute piece of great appeal and some real beauty. It has been approved for performance in a number of different instrumentations.

Hitchin’ is another short pedagogical piece, composed in 2007, and designed to engage the interest of high-school-age piano students. I am sure that it accomplishes its intentions, as it is infectious and lively. But it is not all that easy to play!

The most recent piece here is Cortège for Jack, written just a few days after Zaimont learned of the death of her former composition teacher Jack Beeson in 2010. She notes that she composed the piece on an involuntary and irresistible impulse. Although it is in triple meter, it has the character of a processional, solemn and poignant.

In conclusion, I note that these shorter pieces are played with considerable subtlety, artistry, and attention to detail by Elizabeth Moak, on what is her debut recording.