LAKS: String Quartets Nos. 3-5 / Messages Quartet / Dux 1286
As I noted in my previous review of Szymon Laks’ music, this wonderful Polish-Jewish composer somehow fell through the cracks of history because he was a Jewish Pole living outside his native country for most of his life. A similar fate befell that of another outstanding composer, Mieczysław Weinberg, who has been resuscitated by critics worldwide over the past decade, but for the most part Laks still treads water in obscurity.
The CD I reviewed earlier by the ARC Ensemble included his wonderful String Quartet No. 4, and on another disc including music of several composers the Silesian Quartet recorded his String Quartet No. 5. Here we have a group of four young Polish women, three of whom studied at the Krakow Conservatory and one of which—first violinist Małgotzata Wasiucionek—graduated from the Chopin University in Warsaw and later studied at the Mozarteum Salzburg. The novelty here is his Third Quartet, only previously recorded by the Szymanoski Quartet on Cavi Music 8553158, a performance I’ve never heard. Nonetheless, this talented group of ladies give it their all, pouring energy into the typically quirky first movement and tender feeling into the slow second movement. This quartet, written nearly two decades before the Quartet No. 4, was the first piece Laks composed after being released from Auschwitz, which he survived by being a fast and brilliant copyist for music played by those prison inmates who were proficient at their instruments. The subtitle of this quartet is “On Polish Folk Themes,” and although I am of Polish descent I am two generations removed from the old country, therefore I can’t claim to know the folk themes that Laks used in his work. The liner notes indicate that he used “up to seven Polish folk melodies from Greater Poland and Mazovia to Podhale.”
The third movement is the most folk-like in sound, taken at a lively 3/4 tempo with lots of pizzicato passages to perk things up. This is the least complex of all the movements on this disc, almost a serenade-type piece that could easily be played as a stand-alone encore piece. Complexity returns with the fourth movement, in which the cello saws away at an ostinato beat in the opening chorus while the other instruments play around it. Laks very cleverly uses the cello throughout almost as a ground bass instrument, passing the melody line from first violin to viola while the second violin plays a great many intricate, double-time fills. Eventually the cello plays pizzicato while the other three strings scurry around in soft but busy figures. This is a real tour-de-force, with an almost Hassidic quality in the latter part of the movement.
Comparing the Messages Quartet’s performance to the one by the ARC Ensemble is interesting. The latter group plays it in a fairly strict tempo with plenty of energy, which is fine in its own way, but the former plays it just a shade slower and gives the music a much more syncopated swagger, which I really liked. I think the difference may be simply that the ARC Ensemble was playing the quartet without much experience or familiarity with it or with Laks’ idiom, whereas the Messages Quartet has this music much more “under their skin.” In any event, it’s a delightful reading of Laks’ quirky score. I found myself absolutely captivated by Messages’ suave yet witty interpretation from start to finish. They have an instrumental “sheen” to their sound that is quite unique among modern-day string quartets, which usually focus on edginess of attack and drama in interpretation. Messages plays with plenty of energy, but their instruments also glisten. What a pleasure it is to just bask in their sound!
They continue both their gorgeous sound and sensitive yet enlivened approach in the Fifth Quartet. Once again, they eclipse the earlier performance by the Silesian Quartet by means of their greater feeling for both dynamics and rhythm. One almost feels, while listening, that they strive to communicate with individual listeners rather than a mass audience by personalizing their performances thus. It’s the difference between a stentorian Verdian mezzo singing lieder and a highly sensitized specialist like Mitsuko Shirai. Both have fine voices, but you get more out of the singer who pays more attention to nuance. Listen, for instance, to their wonderful arc in shaping the second movement, then to the “bouncing” rhythm of the Scherzo. This is music-making of a particularly high level that pleases both the senses and the intellect.
I should mention in conclusion that we’ll probably never hear Laks’ first two string quartets. Part of the liner notes were written by the composer’s son, André, and he informs us that they are lost. Thus, unless a miracle occurs, this disc gives us the complete surviving quartets of this extremely talented composer. Highly recommended.
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley
Follow me on Twitter! @Artmusiclounge