ZAIMONT Monarchs. Symphony No. 1. Elegy for Strings

ZAIMONT Monarchs. Symphony No. 1. Elegy for Strings – Leos Svárovský, Doris Lang Kosloff, conds.; Czech Radio SO – ARABESQUE Z6742 (54:56)

Judith Lang Zaimont is, along with Christopher Rouse, Arnold Rosner, and Joseph Schwantner, one of the most interesting compositional voices of her generation. Born in Tennessee, she was trained in New York, and, now in her mid 50s, is Professor of Composition at the University of Minnesota. Zaimont’s music incorporates traditional techniques, such as melody, harmony, and counterpoint, as well as devices associated with later 20th-century styles, such as cluster-sonorities, gestural and textural motifs, and atonality. Both styles may occur within one piece, but without obvious self-consciousness or ostentation. Such a varied vocabulary makes her music quite unpredictable, and a characteristic “sound” is difficult to discern, although most of the works I have heard reveal a convincing sense of authenticity and expressive purpose. Quite a few of her pieces have been recorded, but these have mostly been solo piano and chamber music. This recent release features some of her orchestral music.

Monarchs, composed in 1988, is by far the most rewarding music on the disc, and perhaps the most arresting piece of hers known to me. No indication of the significance of the title is given in the program notes, so it could refer to either rulers or butterflies, as far as we know. The notes do, however, suggest that the single, 18-minute movement falls loosely into sonata allegro form, although it gives the impression of being through-composed, with a continually-shifting yet convincingly-coherent succession of colorful and imaginative sound-images. This is one of the most satisfying works from the late 1980s that I have heard.

Zaimont’s Symphony No. 1 is, though similar in style to Monarchs, somewhat less successful, I am sorry to report. One might regard the ambitious 28-minute, three-movement work, completed in 1994, as a representative example of the eclecticism characteristic of the late-modernist American symphony. As such there is an almost kaleidoscopic array of colorful textures and sonorities, although such a profusion of ideas deprives the work of the sense of coherence that makes Monarchsso successful. Aside from a deliberately banal tune that appears in the playful third movement, little remains in the memory once the music ends.

The 1998 Elegy for Strings is Zaimont’s contribution to a popular genre, although hers is far less effusive and lachrymose than the better known examples. The sensitive, contemplative work is dedicated to the memory of Zaimont’s aunt, so perhaps it is fitting that the composer’s sister serves as conductor of this selection.

Although I did not have access to the scores while auditioning this disc, I suspect that the performances by the Czech Radio Orchestra—of the two large works in particular—fall rather short of the composer’s intentions, although they are generally adequate enough. Perhaps the symphony would fare better in a more virtuosic rendition.