Simon Laks (1901-1983)
Trois Polonaises Varsoviennes du XVIIIe siècle (anon., arr. Laks)
Sonate brève (1946)
Ballade “Hommage à Chopin” (1949)
Prélude, Blues et Polka (1946? - before 1960)
Suite dans le goût ancien (1966)
Les filles du forgeron (1964). Sept pièces pout piano (arr. H. Groschopp 2020)
Holger Groschopp (piano)
rec. 2020/2022, Erholungshaus der BAYER AG, Leverkusen, Germany
CYBELE SACD 162202 
Having very much enjoyed the Cybele recording of Simon Laks' complete cello works with Adele Bitter and Holger Groschopp (Cybele 362203 – review appearing shortly) I was keen to follow it up with the same pianist's performances of his piano works. Hunting around I can see the Ballade “Hommage à Chopin” has had recordings by Vladimir Stoupel (review) and Dominika Glapiak (review), and the Sonatine appears on a Chandos release with the ARC Ensemble (review). In short, Simon Laks is more around and about than he used to be, but having all of these piano works brought together on a single disc is very welcome indeed.
Much of this composer's music from his earlier years has been lost, and the Sonatine is the only surviving piece from the 1920s. In four movements, the quality of this work is evidence that the loss of Laks’ scores is indeed a regrettable side-effect of history. With plenty of virtuoso substance, this is music which harmonically teases our ears in ways that recall some of Hindemith, and with a little of Prokofiev's spiky nervousness in the quicker movements. Subtle resolutions and bi-tonal frictions as well as some lovely soft lyricism in the third Lento non troppo movement make this into a piece that is more deserving of a ‘numbered sonata’ title. The anonymously composed Trois Polonaises Varsoviennes du XVIIIe siècle are light in character but have a connection to Simon Laks’ experiences in Auschwitz who, on having been given them there made arrangements of them for small orchestra. These were lost during the war, and were reconstructed in 1947 with this piano version published in 1950.
Despite his horrific wartime experiences there is no really discernible difference between pre- and post-war Laks in terms of style and mood, and the Sonate brève is in some ways comparable with the Sonatine. Originally composed for harpsichord it sounds perfectly idiomatic on piano, though there is a clear harking back to earlier musical periods, particularly in the last movement that takes on the form of a baroque gigue – avoiding an overtly ‘antique style’ while using certain characteristic baroque gestures and creating a similar atmosphere. The Ballade “Hommage à Chopin” is the best-known work here. It was composed to mark the centenary of Chopin's death and was awarded a prize by the Polish Composers Union. Chopin's atmospheric impressionism, stormy pianistic virtuosity and use of national dance rhythms are all well represented here, and Holger Groschopp plays it as well as anyone else.
The Prélude, Blues et Polka is a set of disparate pieces brought together for publication by Boosey & Hawkes in 2021, but it makes a fine triptych. Eloquence and wit come together in equal measure, and even with the extreme contrast between the first two pieces the whole thing has an attractive period feel and is great fun, with the final Polka really played for laughs. The Suite dans le goût ancien is another piece originally written for harpsichord, with five movements all given baroque dance names. Again, Laks has the knack of infusing ancient musical forms with his own style, with those delicious harmonic frictions never entirely absent, and even throwing in some hints of jazz here and there.
As in the recording with cello, this programme ends with a version of Laks’ incidental music for the play Les filles du forgeron (The Blacksmith's Daughters) by Peretz Hirschbein. Drawing on Yiddish folk songs it can be hard to see where Laks’ original music and more traditional sources begin and end, but this is one of this composer's strengths, using music of the past and blending it immaculately with his own creativity. This collection of delightful miniatures makes up the remainder of the music left after a further five pieces had been arranged for cello and piano, and it makes up a very fine collection of songs or song-like pieces, alongside evocative scenic moments which would have been purely instrumental in the original settings.
Any collector of Simon Laks’s oeuvre will want this release, as should any piano enthusiast. Cybele's recording is excellent as always, and the presentation with illustrations and booklet notes by Holger Groschopp is top-notch.
Published: October 20, 2022