Laks’ Startling Chamber Works Revived

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LAKS: String Quartet No. 4. Divertimento for Violin, Clarinet, Bassoon & Piano. Sonatina. Concertino for Oboe, Clarinet & Bassoon. Passacaille, arr. of Vocalise for Clarinet & Piano. Piano Quintet / ARC Ensemble with Sarah Jeffrey, oboist; Frank Morelli, bassoonist / Chandos CHAN 10983

This is one of the CDs in Chandos’ “Music in Exile” series, devoted to Jewish composers of the inter-war years who were either interred in concentration camps, died there, or miraculously escaped but lived their lives in exile. The problem with the concept is that, as in the case of nearly any group of men (and isn’t it interesting that they’s all men? Apparently, the Nazis were sexist as well as racist!), talent is not evenly distributed. Viktor Ullmann, for instance, was a fascinating composer, but Hanns Eiler was just an annoying man who thought he was a good composer.

As it turns out, Polish-born Szymon Laks was extremely talented and, more to the point, individual and interesting. His String Quartet No. 4 begins with quirky atonal counterpoint, above which one of the solo violins comes in to play a similarly quirky melody. Throughout the brief (4:27) first movement, Laks continues to play this cat-and-mouse game, and in the slow movement he shows us his own method of writing moody music with a harmonic “edge” to it. This is truly innovative stuff. The third movement seems to be in an irregular meter, albeit an edgy one with a ferocious forward drive to it. The liner notes call the music “jazz-inflected” but as a lifelong student of jazz I can assure you it most certainly is not.

Laks brings a similar sensibility to the 1967 Divertimento for clarinet, violin, piano and bassoon, except that here the edginess of the 1962 Quartet has become a bit more playful. Believe it or not, I hear in his music a strong and very direct influence on most of our modern American composers today. Despite the fact that he lived out his post-War life in France, I don’t hear much of an influence on modern French composers, who more often than not seemed to follow in the footsteps of Poulenc, Honegger or Messiaen. The only French composer whose work sounds to me influenced in some manner by Laks is Jean Françaix.

Laks was living in France when the Nazis arrested him in 1941. At first he was sent to the camp at Pithiviers, but then he was transferred to good old Auscwhitz-Birkenau in Poland. Now here’s a linguistic lesson for all of you sticklers for language out there. Auschwitz is the GERMAN NAME ONLY for the town in which this concentration camp was built. The actual, real Polish name for the town is Oświęcim, but historians and Holocaust rembrance groups continue to call it by its occupiers’ name. By the same token, Birkenau’s original Polish name was Brzezinka, although the camp also included the villages of Babice, Broszkowice, Rajsk, Plawy and Harmeze because Brzezinka was too small by itself.

In any event, Laks was one of the lucky few whose musical skills were so extraordinarily that he was spared to become the arranger and conductor of the camp orchestra. (Contrary to some rumors, Alma Rosé, daughter of famed Austrian-Jewish violinist Arnold Rosé, was also spared when she was in Auschwitz but died of an infection that could not be cured.) One way wonder why some of the best Jewish musicians were actually spared. If the biography of Alma Rosé is to be believed, and there seems little doubt that it is true, it was because Dr. Joseph Mengele, the “Butcher of Auschwitz,” was a fanatic classical music fan and adored their playing. (According to the bio, Mengele personally interceded on Alma Rosé’s behalf and desperately tried to save her life.) If this seems incompatible with the Nazi attitude towards Jews, I will agree with you, but please remember that for many years the Jewish tenor Joseph Schmidt was not only spared persecution but allowed to make films and recordings in Nazi Germany. Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who adored Schmidt’s voice, was once said to have responded to a critic, “I will decide who’s Jewish and who isn’t!” But of course this was the lucky fate of only a chosen few. Laks made it very clear in his post-War remembrances that “music was powerless to effect any tangible improvement, and irrelevant to the quality of prisoners’ lives,” and the horrors he witnessed in the camp depressed him for the rest of his life.

To return to the music: the earliest piece in this collection, the 1927 Piano Sonata, reveals a similar use of spiky and unsettled harmony but a more elegant musical line, particularly in the first movement. This almost sounds like a cross between Poulenc and Stravinsky, and once again Laks’ extraordinary talent for musical construction comes to the fore. In the later movements, however, Laks’ penchant for restless motor rhythms again drives the music. I should mention at this point that all of the musicians involved in this project (using the umbrella title ARC or Artists of the Royal Conservatory in Canada), young though they are, take to this music like ducks to water. An interesting story in the booklet is that when the quintet was performing a piece by Laks in 2008, they were approached by an old woman named Halina who told them she hadn’t heard any of Laks’ music for 50 years.

The 1965 Concertino is also a bright, witty piece, and here one clearly hears more of a French than an American sensibility. Laks eschews his normal atonal or polytonal style here to produce a work of elegant, bouncy charm. By contrast, the clarinet version of the 1945 Passacaille for voice and piano is lyrical in Laks’ own unique way. A personal note: although it is beautifully played, I wish they had used a singer for contrast’s sake.

We end this excursion into the mind of Szymon Laks with his 1967 Quintet for Piano and Strings “on popular Polish themes.” Because of his use of folk music, Laks walks a tightrope between that world and his own world of spiky classical harmonies. The effect is bracing; one hears the “Polish themes” being played, with some of their original harmony, above a much more astringent tonal base played just beneath the surface. Moreover, the composer’s mind was quite obviously let loose on re-imagining this music, Seldom have I heard such a piece where the “folk themes” used as a basis for a classical piece are so thoroughly integrated. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell where the “Polish theme” ends and Laks’ own music picks up, or exactly how he worked out the transitions back and forth throughout each movement. This is the kind of piece that takes several listenings to appreciate and fully grasp, but it’s certainly worth the effort! I was especially fascinated by the sighing, seductive second movement, although the pizzicato third is certainly ingenious in its own way, particularly when he suddenly switches to a mazurka theme in the middle.

This is quite an extraordinary and interesting disc, all the more fascinating because both its composer and its performers are not well known, but should be. Bravo to all who took part in the conception and production of this splendid disc!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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