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Robert Hugill
MusicWeb International, November 2006

Judith Lang Zaimont studied piano at the Juilliard and composition at Queen’s College with Hugo Weisgall and at Columbia University. She then travelled to Paris to study with André Jolivet. She has become a distinguished teacher as well as garnering a significant number of awards and fellowships.

Her recent works have included three symphonies, a chamber opera for children, oratorios and cantatas as well as music on American Indian themes. This disc surveys her Judaically-inspired music from 1976 to 1997.

Her 1976 Sacred Service for the Sabbath Evening was commissioned by the Great Neck Choral Society (New York) for the American Bicentennial celebrations. It is not in fact a synagogue worship service but a concert work. Its sixteen movements set texts of English prose or quasi-poetic texts taken from the Union Prayerbook for Jewish Worship. Unlike the better-known service settings by Bloch and Milhaud, which have developed a concert life even though they were written for the synagogue, Zaimont’s setting is based largely on texts which fall outside the liturgy. Three choral numbers were extracted from the service and have been performed widely in the context of synagogue services.

This disc contains six of the movements from the service, recorded in April 2000 by Gerard Schwarz and the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, with baritone solos sung by James Maddalena. The music to be heard here is lively and tuneful and I would be interested to hear the full work, however I am not sure whether there is sufficient of interest for a non-Judaically-inclined listener. A greater problem is the significant baritone solo; James Maddalena is a fine singer but, as recorded here, his voice displays a significant wobble which becomes rather intrusive.

Dating from 1976, A Woman of Valour is written for mezzo-soprano and string quartet and sets a selection of verses from the Book of Proverbs. The poem is an ode to the ideal wife. It is an intricate work and receives a strong performance from Margaret Kohler and the Everest String Quartet.

Zaimont’s 1986 piece Parable: A Tale of Abram and Isaac is based on the poem The Parable of the Old Man and the Young by Wilfred Owen. In this, Owen uses the story of Abraham and Isaac as a metaphor for the senseless barbarism of the First World War. Owen adds a new twist to the end as Abraham refuses the Angel’s suggestion to offer the Ram of Pride as an offering to God and ‘slew his son, And half the seed of Europe, one by one’. Zaimont appends the Hebrew Kaddish to the text to form a fitting conclusion.

This is an altogether more powerful work than the Sacred Service. Its language is tougher and more expressive, Zaimont was released from the need to worry about not offending her audience. The piece is written for an accompaniment of strings and harpsichord and the resulting textures are lovely, the harpsichord contributing a significant amount to the timbre of the piece. As with a number of other 20th century works, in the right hands the harpsichord can sound a very contemporary instrument.

John Aler is the hard-working and mellifluously expressive tenor soloist. But after the work’s powerful climax Zaimont introduces a remarkable new element, it actually finishes with a powerful coda in which a speaker says the Kaddish with tenor, chorus and ensemble providing gentle accompaniment; a profoundly moving experience. The work is also available in a version for chorus and organ, a form that might be worth exploration by choral societies.

The disc concludes with the most recent work on the disc, Meditations at the Time of the New Year. A two movement work which sets a selection of texts drawn from various creative silent meditations supplementing the Rosh Hashana liturgy in many Reform synagogue services. The work is written for choir and soli with a sparsely scored percussion accompaniment which features much glockenspiels and chimes. Zaimont conjures some lovely textures from her forces, but the piece sounds tricky. The Choral Society of Southern California make rather heavy weather of it and their choral sound is afflicted by wobble. Still, they give a moderately creditable performance, sufficient to allow us to appreciate the work.

As with the other discs in this series, the CD booklet gives copious information about the liturgical background to the text, so much so that for these secular works I felt that you had to dig a bit to find out the more secular and musical information.

Zaimont is obviously a composer whose work ought to be more available on CD, but whether it does her justice to highlight her Jewish-themed works, I am not really sure. Whilst the performances on this disc are strong, I came away thinking that there was rather more to Zaimont than was revealed on this disc.

Glyn Pursglove
MusicWeb International, February 2006

I have heard all too little of the music of Judith Lang Zaimont. I can only remember hearing – and enjoying – some music for piano solo. This included a striking Piano Sonata and a modern Nocturne as well as the fascinating Jupiter’s Moons, complex and allusive, yet very individual keyboard writing. She has also written three symphonies, many choral settings, a chamber opera for children, music for wind ensembles and a number of chamber works (see her website This CD from Naxos concentrates on only one strand in her work, music explicitly written in response to Jewish traditions.

There is much fine music here. The excerpts from her Sacred Service for the Sabbath Evening are impressive and powerful, but a little frustrating. The Milken Archive series often seems to present works through excerpts; this hasn’t normally troubled me, but here I was very much left wanting to hear the whole, to see how everything cohered. The work was commissioned in 1976 by the Great Neck Choral Society and was designed as a concert work, rather than for liturgical use. Its idiom is essentially tonal, with some telling dissonances at several key points. The choral writing is sophisticated and quite demanding, though complexity is never allowed to obscure the texts. Neil W. Levin’s booklet notes tell us that "the sixteen movements [six are presented here] ... appear in three large sections of five pieces each, with an epilogue following Part three. Parts one and two exhibit a dramatic approach, each concluding with an impressive choral movement. Part three (not represented in the recorded excerpts here) has a more sustained, meditative character". The comments are tantalising and begin to suggest something of the extra significance these extracts might take on if heard in their proper context. The whole work would surely have fitted on one CD? I am tempted to think that I would have sacrificed the other works on the CD (not that they are other than interesting) to hear this entire. The German choir cope pretty well and James Maddalena is a convincing soloist.

A Woman of Valor is a beautifully lyrical piece, in which the music is closely responsive to the text (the famous passage in Proverbs 31 which begins "Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is above rubies"). The writing for string quartet is both elegant and forceful, and Margaret Kohler is a fresh-voiced soloist.

Zaimont’s Parable sets a text created from an adaptation of the Mystery play ‘Abraham and Isaac’, Wilfred Owen’s ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’ and (sung in Hebrew) the Mourner’s Kaddish. It is a compelling piece, urgently dramatic; despite one’s familiarity with Britten’s settings of some of the same material there is enough that is distinctive and persuasive in Zaimont’s work to make one temporarily forget it. The choral passages drive the narrative forward, the solo voices of Abraham and Isaac are more static. All the soloists are excellent and the whole is thoroughly impressive. It has apparently been performed with some frequency in the USA. This recording was made in London – has it ever had a concert performance in the UK? It deserves one.

Initially, the two Meditations at the Time of the New Year seemed to me the weakest pieces on the CD, but they have grown on me with later hearings. In the first, ‘Dawn’, we have a musical meditation on sunrise; the second ‘Hope’ is both blessing and prayer. Both make much use of percussion and the juxtaposition of glockenspiel and bells with choral voices produces some unusual effects. The Choral Society of North America handle some difficult music very well.

This is one of the most consistently rewarding of the fascinating Milken Archive series. So much so that it leaves one wanting to hear more.

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