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Szymon LAKS (1903-1983)
String Quartet No. 3 “On Polish Folk Themes” (1945) [19:49]
String Quartet No. 4 (1962) [13:53]
String Quartet No. 5 (1963) [20:12]
Messages Quartet
rec. Concert Hall of the Krzysztof Penderecki European Centre for Music, Lusławice, Poland, 2016
DUX 1286 [53:56]

Szymon Laks was a Polish composer who lived the greater part of his life in France. As a Jew in Paris, the invading Germans sent him to Auschwitz, where he survived because of his work with an orchestra. After the war Laks returned to Paris, assuming French citizenship. He abandoned composing in 1967, in response to the Six-day war’s threat to Israel. Much of Laks’ early music was destroyed, his career was grievously interrupted, and his reputation surely stunted. I had never heard of Laks or his music until quite recently, but have quickly become an enthusiast for his thoughtful and often stirring neoclassical works. A recent Chandos disc makes a fine introduction to Laks’ energetic music (review), as does a CPO recording of two works for chamber orchestra (review).
Laks wrote five string quartets, but those composed in 1928 and 1932 were lost in the chaos of World War II. The remaining three are rather different from one another, making one especially curious about the lost works. The spirited Messages Quartet is new, all-female ensemble from Poland. Its name comes from the second string quartet of Andrzej Panufnik. They play with vigor and cohesion, making excellent guides to this unfamiliar music.
String Quartet No. 3 “On Polish Folk Themes” is something of a divertimento, astonishingly upbeat in tone for its 1945 composition. It is an immediately likeable work, which Laks arranged as a piano quintet in 1967. You can hear that version on the Chandos disc, performed by the ARC Ensemble of Toronto’s Royal Conservatory. The Messages Quartet’s interpretation is harder-driving than the ARC recording, which is mellower and less exciting, although perhaps more “folkish.” The scherzo, full of pizzicatos, is playful. And the conclusion of the final movement is quite thrilling.
The Fourth Quartet of 1962 calls up a much more sophisticated musical world. In its propulsion, clarity, and sharply etched rhythms, the work reminds me of another East European émigré in Paris, Bohuslav Martinů. Again, Laks shows his fondness for pizzicato. The Andante sostenuto opens with considerable tension, then shows some wonderful upward swoops in the middle. The final movement contains a vigorous fugue, and here as in the other movements, the Messages Quartet performs with greater commitment and assurance than the ARC players.

Although Laks composed his Fifth Quartet only a year later, its style shifts to something much darker. It is not quite so austere as his Symphony for Strings of 1964, but shares its language. There are moments of emphatic rhythmic certainty alternating with slithery, vaguely uncentered melodies, creating a very serious work that is no less appealing than its lighter-hearted predecessors.

Dux has produced a fine sounding recording, which shows off the outstanding musicianship of the Messages Quartet. It is too bad Dux recordings are not available for download. They are obtainable by mail order or perhaps a visit to Poland, a situation which disadvantages both Dux’s fine artists and many potential listeners.

Richard Kraus

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank



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