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Simon Laks (1901-1983)
Trois pièces de concert pour violoncelle et piano (1933)
Sonate pour violoncelle et piano (1932)
Passacaille (Vocalise) pour violoncelle et piano (1946)
Dialogue pour deux violoncelles (1964)
Le filles de forgeron (1964/2020)
Suite pour violoncelle et piano (arr. H. Groschopp)
Adele Bitter (violoncello)
Holger Groschopp (piano)
Mischa Meyer (2nd violoncello)
rec. 2020/22, Erholungshaus der BAYER AG, Leverkusen, Germany
CYBELE 362203 SACD [60]

Simon Laks is a name that has become reasonably familiar in recent years due to a number of CD releases, but aside from the Cello Sonata that has appeared on labels such as EDA Records (review), CD Accord (review) and Nimbus, this programme from Cybele has plenty of less familiar material for us to get out teeth into. Indeed, this album lays claim to presenting all of Laks’ works for cello for the first time in a single recording, so collectors will be sure to find this interesting. Holger Groschopp has also recorded Simon Laks’ piano works on Cybele 162202.

Born in Warsaw and with studies there, in Vienna and in Paris, Simon Laks joined in the contemporary Parisian scene and the Association des jeunes musiciens polonais, but as Adele Bitter tells us in her booklet notes, Laks' character was not one that sought out the limelight. The Trois pièces de concert takes us into the Paris of the 1930s, where the fashion for neoclassicism and unpretentious expression through the influence of jazz and other imported stylistic traits is projected in a charming opening Prélude varié. There is a lovely central Romance that has a song-like character, its first section built over subtly varied chords on a sustained harmonic pedal tone in the piano, and perhaps a few nods towards Rachmaninov here and there. The closing piece is a Mouvement perpétuel with a virtuoso cello part that reflects the skill of its dedicatee, André Hekking, then solo cellist with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra.

As previously mentioned, the Cello Sonata is by some margin the best-known work here, its performance here every bit as immaculate as the qualities ascribed to it by Adele Bitter in her notes: “a work of the highest perfection... Every phrase of the first movement harbours a narrative within it... the second movement is a blues, the third movement pulses with rhythmic patterns that would become characteristic of cool jazz only much later.” This is indeed a substantial work, and that central Andante un poco grave with its spread piano chords will always bring you back for more.

Simon Laks survived the Holocaust by a “chain of miracles”, and the Passacaille (Vocalise) is an unspoken and, originally for voice and piano, wordless expression of mourning and anguish. An unmistakable climax that reflects horror and painful memories subsides into a reprise of the moving opening bars, this time concluding in grief-laden resignation. A change of colour is introduced through the remarkable Dialogue pour deux violoncelles, which is an often intense meeting of equal voices. Folk-music rhythms in the second movement invite comparison with Bartók, and the counterpoint in the final movement perhaps hints at Shostakovich, but you would be unlikely to mistake this for either.

The final work here is an arrangement of incidental music that Laks wrote for a Yiddish play called Les filles du forgeron (The Blacksmith's Daughters). The music for this only survives in a so-called ‘director's copy’ piano part, but with some freedom applied to the kind of virtuoso variations that might be expected from this composer what we have is a very enjoyable and expertly arranged suite of songs and interludes that trace the story of the play: a rustic comedy of typical Jewish family frictions and a joyous final wedding scene. There is indeed some magical music here, all done with a good-humoured lightness of touch and plenty of happy references to operetta and other venerable stage traditions.

Single movement timings are all over the place as printed on the back cover of this release, but this is a micro-criticism of an excellent programme recorded with Cybele's usual accuracy and refinement. Adele Bitter is an ideal performer in communicating Simon Laks’ transparent flair as a composer, with Holger Groschopp a sensitive and suitably vibrant partner.

Dominy Clements

Published: October 26, 2022

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