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Szymon LAKS (1901-1983)
String Quartet No 3 “Based on Polish Folklore Themes” (1945, arr. for string orchestra, Agnieszka Duczmal) [22:47]
String Quartet No 4 (1962, arr. unknown) [17:30]
String Quartet No 5 (1963, arr. Laks) [25:21]
Amadeus Chamber Orchestra of Polish Radio/Agnieszka Duczmal (4), Anna Duczmal-Mróz (3 & 5)
Rec. 2012/2013, University Auditorium, Poznań, Poland
DUX 1626 [65:40]

For one reason and another Szymon Laks spent virtually his entire adult life in exile; having been born in Warsaw at the turn of the twentieth century, he pursued mathematics as an undergraduate in Vilnius before returning to his home city in the early 1920s to study composition and conducting at the local conservatory. Toward the end of the decade, after a brief spell as a cinema pianist in Vienna he continued his training in Paris, no doubt dazzled by its status as the epicentre of the contemporary music firmament. He became a key figure among the Polish musical community there until 1941 when he was arrested by the occupying Nazi forces and deported by them to Auschwitz. Inevitably his harrowing experiences in the camp would define him and his work; he ran the orchestra there and would in due course produce the memoir Mélodies d'Auschwitz. Having survived unimaginable privations and his subsequent transfer to Dachau he returned to Paris in May 1945, literally days after his liberation. He took French citizenship and never returned to his homeland.

But Poland never forgot him; indeed the rehabilitation of Laks’ music has gathered pace during the last five years, thanks mainly to the redoubtable Polish label Dux. Apart from the issue under consideration here, they have released discs of his three surviving string quartets in their original form (review) as well as a two disc set of his complete songs which is in my pending drawer – I have only just received it for future review. Other labels have chipped in: Laks’ superb Concerto da Camera is the centrepiece of a recent anthology on Accord (review) whilst Rob Barnett enjoyed his Sinfonietta and Symphony for Strings on a CPO issue (review). Even Chandos have entered the fray, having released a varied and generous selection of chamber music performed by the estimable ARC Ensemble (review).

The relevance of that latter issue lies in its inclusion of different iterations of two of the three works on the present disc. Whilst they give a taut (and superbly recorded) account of Laks’ Fourth Quartet in its original form, they also perform a version of the folk influenced Third in an arrangement for piano quintet made by the composer in 1967. Of the three pieces under consideration here, this self-evidently attractive, apparently jovial work is certainly the most flexible in terms of its potential for transcription, and that certainly comes across in this performance by the Amadeus Chamber Orchestra. Agnieszka Duczmal’s arrangement for a larger string complement was commissioned by Boosey and Hawkes and is here conducted by her daughter Anna Duczmal-Mróz. The work is cast in four movements, the first of which is marked Allegro quasi presto and whose rustic spirit transfers most gratefully to the string orchestra medium. It is both gentle and genial and belies the fact that the original quartet was produced in the immediate aftermath of the composer’s wartime trauma. In this orchestral guise the melodic and rhythmic material certainly seems very Polish in character, although it still projects an unexpected kinship with Bartok’s Divertimento. The slow movement tellingly suggests mild nostalgia rather than overt tragedy but something more unsettling is hinted at towards its denouement, notably in an enigmatic duo for solo violin and viola and a strange descending glissando. A brief scherzo marked Vivace non troppo is a folky ‘playful pizzicato’ type confection with an appealingly lethargic tune at its core whilst the fruity melodies and foot-tapping rhythms of the finale exude Tatra flavours that will be instantly familiar to those listeners that know Szymanowski’s mastely choral ballet Harnasie.

As Rob Barnett pointed out in his review of the Dux disc of the original quartets, the three works are stylistically very different. Laks’ Fourth Quartet emerged seventeen years later in 1962. The jazzy neo-classicism which characterises its outer movements may have seemed somewhat anachronistic at that point, but it seems unfailingly fresh and attractive to my ears six decades later. The opening movement’s syncopated groove contrasts with a cool, rather acerbic central section. I have not been able to establish the provenance of this arrangement (it’s a glaring omission in the booklet) but the individual responsible mixes up the textural variety most pleasingly as the movement unfolds. A pointed melancholy inhabits the central Andante sostenuto, an enjoyable slice of Bartokian Nachtmusik which constitutes a marked contrast with the motoric, gymnastic syncopations of the lively finale. Laks’ music is a genuine delight; but I do feel a bit short-changed by the playing and the recording. The orchestra’s ensemble seems a bit ragged here and there; nor are the players helped by the Dux sonics which are rather underwhelming – the dry, compressed acoustic seems to militate against the dynamism of the music.

Laks finally seemed able to release at least some of the trauma derived from his wartime experiences into the fabric of his Fifth Quartet which he produced a year later. In his own arrangement of it for string orchestra the opening Allegro moderato clocks in at just under ten minutes – the longest single span of music on the disc. Whilst it’s mildly dissonant and certainly darker than its siblings, it stops short of seeming stark or tortured. It sounds as impressive in its expansion as it does in its original form, a wholly coherent and inevitable arc which is as easy to like as it is to admire. The chromatic nature of the melodic content is no impediment whatsoever to its memorability. The following Adagio molto seems to move more swiftly than its marking might suggest; the textures thicken in accordance with the increasing astringency of its content. An unassuming scherzo evolves around a ghostly little ascending and falling motif which might have escaped from a Weinberg quartet; it swings hither and thither enigmatically exuding tenebroso lightness. The joviality conveyed in the initial bars of the concluding Allegro giocoso seems a bit forced to my ears; in the circumstances one wonders if Laks is unconsciously communicating defiance through a rictus smile in the face of unimaginable adversity. Repeated playing reveal this Fifth Quartet to be a tautly constructed slice of expressionistic seriousness shot through with tidy neo-classical restraint. In both its shape and content, to my ears it is uncannily reminiscent of Arthur Honegger’s magnificent Symphony No 2. It is the best played and recorded of the three arrangements here, although the mildly distracting aridity in the sonics persists.

Considering these three contrasting works as a cycle (Laks’ first two string quartets appear to have been lost), they demonstrate that this fine composer was able to thoroughly absorb a range of diverse influences and styles despite the hiatus forced upon him by his internment. This music only goes so far, however, in revealing a truly distinctive personality. Notwithstanding that, I found myself warming to Laks’ quiet, unshowy voice and his expertly conceived structures with the increased familiarity which frequent repetition invariably brings.

Richard Hanlon

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