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Szymon LAKS (1901–1983)
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: Małgorzata Wasiucionek, Oriana Masternak (violins), Maria Dutka (viola), Beata Urbanek-Kalinowska (cello)
rec. 2016, Concert Hall of the Krzyszlakstof Penderecki European Centre for Music, Lusławice, Poland
DUX 1286 [53:56]

Szymon Laks wrote five string quartets, but only the last three are extant. The first two, which predate the Second World War, are lost. Nos. 3-5 have each been recorded separately on various labels. Indeed, I have just recently reviewed the Fourth Quartet on a Chandos CD, featuring other chamber music by the composer, in their Music in Exile series. The performers on that recording are the Canadian ARC Ensemble. Coincidentally, I see that the Silesian String Quartet have recently committed their interpretations of the three quartets to a single release, though sadly it seems virtually impossible to obtain in the UK.

Laks, born in Warsaw in 1901, initially studied mathematics in Vilnius before enrolling as a music student at the Warsaw Conservatory in 1921. He settled in Paris after graduation in 1925 and continued studies with Henri Rabaud and Paul Vidal. He was one of the founder members of the Association for Young Polish Musicians in Paris. When the Nazis occupied France in 1941 Laks, a Jew, was interned at Pithiviers. 1942-1944 were spent at Auschwitz-Birkenau. He always maintained that music saved his life. In 1944 he was transferred to Dachau, prior to liberation in April 1945. He eventually settled in Paris, where he stayed for the remainder of his life. He never again returned to Poland. Laks spread his wings far and wide. As well a composer, he was a competent violinist, writer, linguist and translator. He died in 1983.

I was amazed to discover that the String Quartet No. 3, dating from 1945, following the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, bears none of the scars of Laks's years of captivity. This tuneful, folk-inspired work is almost defiant in its positivity and upbeat mood. In fact, it is only in the slow movement that the composer allows himself a wistful reminiscence and backward glance. The brief third movement Vivace is a delight. Its pizzicatos are crisply articulated; the Messages Quartet’s ravishing playing floods the vista with radiant sunlight. The composer drew on seven Polish folk melodies for the quartet, from the Wielkopolska, Mazowsze and Podhale regions, incorporating them into a tightly-constructed neoclassically flavoured mould.

It was seventeen years before he tackled another work in the medium. Unlike Quartets 3 and 5, No. 4 is structured in three movements only. Laks breaches the classical/popular boundaries in this jazzy/bluesy-inflected score. The outer movements, which are rather energetic and vital, frame a central slow movement of contrasting serenity. The Messages Quartet have full measure of the idiom, and deliver a reading of rhythmic potency.

Despite the fact that only a year separates the Fourth and Fifth String Quartets, this last venture demonstrates that the composer had made great strides compositionally. The work is markedly more complex, more texturally dense and more harmonically advanced. I can certainly hear Ravelian influences throughout, and perhaps Shostakovich lurks in the shadows. The slow movement is intensely lyrical, and the Messages Quartet play with astonishing refinement and allure. The finale's verve and vigour sets the seal on a compelling cycle.

These are superbly crafted works and are definitely worth exploring. The young Messages Quartet, only founded in 2014, make a specialty of 20th and 21st century Polish chamber music, so are truly in their comfort zone here. They deliver idiomatic performances of great authority and formidable musicianship. Added to that, they are captured in ideal sound and balance. This is their debut CD, and an impressive start to their recording career. I would strongly urge chamber music lovers to give these captivating works a try.

Stephen Greenbank


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