Two performances of Laks’s string quartets performed by the ARC Ensemble and Messages Quartet

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

WORKS: String Quartets Nos 3-5
PERFORMER: Messages Quartet

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Following a well-trodden path from Warsaw to Paris, Szymon Laks (1901-83) went west in 1926 to become one of the pioneers of the Young Polish Musicians Association in the French capital. Earlier, he had spent two years studying mathematics in Vilnius before returning to the conservatoire in Warsaw, the city of his birth, but most of his career would be spent in France, where he developed a neo-Classical style in keeping with Parisian taste. Many of his early scores were lost in the upheaval of World War II, and Laks survived Auschwitz probably only because of his service – as violinist, conductor and arranger – in the camp orchestra. He described his experiences there in the book La Musique d’un autre monde, a poignant yet somehow witty memoir. Jewish themes became increasingly important after the war, especially in his song settings of Polish Jewish poets, notably Julian Tuwim. In the wake of 1967’s Six-Day War, he gave up composition and put his remaining energies into literature.

His work-list is dominated by chamber music, and the latest recording in Chandos’s Music in Exile series from the ARC Ensemble (Toronto-based Artists of The Royal Conservatory) gives us a generous overview of that output, with repertoire here ranging from 1927 to 1967. At the centre of this is his 1945 Passacaille, full of melancholy shadows and the only piece here to hint at his wartime experiences. The ARC Ensemble brings out its depths, just as the players are on scintillating form elsewhere. The basically cheerful tone of the 1967 Piano Quintet (‘On Popular Polish Themes’) is puzzling, since it is an arrangement of his 1945 String Quartet No. 3; Simon Wynberg, the ARC Ensemble’s founder, suggests that it was conceived earlier. A highlight is the post-Ravelian piano Sonatina, played with a light touch by David Louie. Chandos claims these as ‘premiere recordings’, but in the String Quartet No. 4 they were narrowly beaten by two releases of Laks’s complete string quartets.

‘Complete’ in this context means Nos 3-5, since the early two were lost. For Dux, Poland’s young Messages Quartet play with warmth and bring out the true qualities of Laks’s quartet writing, including the transparency of No. 5. Their performance of the Quartet No. 4 is slightly faster yet less sardonic than the Canadian competition, and the slow movement of No. 3 is wistfully haunting. This is fascinating music: once you start listening you will want both recordings.

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John Allison