SZYMON LAKS: Chamber Music—Divertimento—Wind Concertino—Passacaille—String Quartet No. 4—Piano Quintet—Sonatina—ARC Ensemble—Chandos CHAN 10983, 83:04, ****:
A Holocaust survivor’s vibrant neoclassical chamber music emerges from the shadows.
There have been a lot of recordings of Jewish composers who perished in the Holocaust of World War II in the last twenty-five years. Much less attention has been paid to those musicians and composers who survived the horrors of the Nazi regime. Composer and musician Simon Laks lived through the atrocities of a prison camp. His distinctive chamber music on this disc is a stellar example of discovering and reviving lost music from the 20th century. The Artistic Director of the ARC Ensemble, Simon Wynberg asserts, “Beyond the lives lost, the more complicated story has to do with how bigotry and war utterly changed the course of musical history by marginalizing the work of many survivors.” This CD is part of the ARC Ensemble’s Music in Exile series that is finding and performing significant music unperformed for over 50 years.
The Polish composer Szymon Laks (1901-83) was deported to the transit camp of Pithiviers in 1941 while teaching music and playing the violin in Parisian cafés. When he arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau he became conductor of the prison orchestra where his skills as arranger, conductor and linguist probably saved his life. But in his autobiography, Music From Another World, Laks rejected the idea that music has any healing or redemptive powers. “I personally believe that music was simply one of the parts of camp life.” But he also observed that music seemed to humanize some Nazi guards when they heard it performed. When the war ended in late April 1945 he returned to Paris and became a French citizen.
Most of the music on this disc was written in an affirmative neoclassical style, which makes this disc easy to enjoy. But the domination of modernism after World War II also made his music old-fashioned and easily forgotten. It is surprising that most of the music here does not reflect the horrors of the prison camps. The one exception is the Passacaille in this version for clarinet and piano. The repetition of an eight bar theme is quietly sad and could easily represent the isolation and alienation that he experienced in his War imprisonment.
The Quintet for piano and strings of 1967 is the composer’s arrangement of his Third String Quartet written in 1945. Amazingly, this radiant divertissement reflects none of the atrocities of his Nazi experiences. It’s a compendium of many Polish songs and dances that is distinguished by a beautiful slow movement that could be a memorial to friends lost in the war.
The remaining chamber music spans his career from 1927 to 1967. The early Sonatina for piano (1927) is pensive, spirited and stylish. It’s the kind of music he might have played in a French café. Between 1954 and 1960 Laks’ musical output waned due to ill health and economic difficulties. His film scores from this period were written under a pseudonym. The String Quartet No. 4 (1962) has a jaunty, memorable theme that is contrasted by an astringently profound Andante sostenuto. Happy, jazz inflicted spirits propel the last movement. This work won the Liege International Quartet competition and its almost 15 minute length would make an excellent opener in a chamber music concert.
The two woodwind works on this disc have an infectious whimsicality that make them very attractive. The Concertino for oboe, clarinet, and bassoon (1965) is light-hearted from the get-go because of the interplay between the two natural orchestral makers of mirth—the oboe and bassoon. But it’s not easy to perform and the ARC ensemble musicians are superb. Divertimento for violin, piano, clarinet and bassoon (1967) flows easily and has more clearly defined melodies. The melancholy Andante is Laks at his most expressive. There’s a lot of similarity to Poulenc in Lak’s woodwind music.
This disc of unknown and spirited chamber music is superbly performed and recorded. Highly recommended.