Szymon Laks’ Pieces for Voice & Piano

EDA45 cover

LAKS: 5 Songs on Poems by Julian Tuwim (1938/1961). Dyzio marzyciel. O Grzesiu klamczuchu. Bezdomna (Homeless). Staruszkowie (Old People). Aniołowe lica (Angel Faces). Prośba o piosenkę. Polały się łzy me (My Tears Fell). Le Général. Ewangelia szczęśliwych (The Gospel of the Happy). Jezusek. O matusiu moja. C’est d’un’ maladie d’coeur. Jednego całowałam z miłości (I Kissed Once for Love). Ballada starofrancuska. Walczyk. 8 Popular Jewish Songs. Passacaille. Elegy for the Jewish Villages. Pogrzeb. Trois Poèmes Chantés. La Rue. Deszcz. Portrait of the Bird-That-Doesn’t-Exist. 4 Songs on Words by Tadeusz Śliwiak. Nie winię, Pozegnanie (Farewell). Gdybyś (If You  / Ania Vegry, sop; Dominique Horwitz, spkr; Katarzyna Wasiak, pno / Alkoholik / Mieczysław Fogg, Syrena-Records Orchestra, 1934 / EDA 45

Szymon (Simon) Laks was a Polish-Jewish composer whose work was encouraged by figures as musically diverse as Paderewski and Szymanowski. Laks pursued his career in Paris during the interwar years, but after France fell to the Nazis they caught up with him and sent him to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where, amazingly, he was put in charge of the camp orchestra at the latter and survived the war.

This complete collection of his songs, all first recordings, is based on poems by Jacques Audiberti, Claude Aveline, Stanisław Baliński, Wanda Maya Berezowska, Jules Laforgue and several others in addition to eight Jewish folk songs and Polish folk song arrangements. Probably because he was writing for the voice, Laks’ songs are not as edgy or harmonically complex as his chamber music; on the contrary, several of them, such as the first three Songs on Poems by Julian Tuwim, are quite melodious and in fact not very far from the popular cabaret music of the 1930s, but some of them, like the last two of these songs from 1961, are more advanced structurally and harmonically without sacrificing a lyric line for the singer.

We are indeed fortunate in this collection to have a soprano with a pretty good voice. Ania Vegry’s highest notes tend to sound a bit edgy, but for the most part her firm, bright voice is attractive and her diction is crystal-clear. Those songs that are not sung are narrated by Dominique Horwitz, and very characterfully, too.

If the music contained herein is less startling and innovative than his chamber music, it compensates with its lightness, charm and wit. The one problem I had in reviewing this set, however, was that the extra booklet with all of the song texts and translations was not provided to me, thus I had to gauge each song based on its general mood and title.

And of course, Laks himself never intended that all of these songs be heard one after the other in sequence as they are here, and that is the one problem with this 2-CD set. There is a certain sameness to the material, and after a while one zones out and the music fades a bit into the background despite the few interesting passages here and there. If, however, one chose to program a few of them in a vocal recital, they would surely be welcome visitors in the concert hall, for most are quite melodic and attractive.

Clearly, the strangest track on this CD is Alkoholik, taken from a 1934 78-rpm recording by one Mieczysław Fogg and the Syrena-Records Orchestra. This was clearly intended as a sort of pop-folk tune, and quite apropos to the Poles who surely do love to drink (mostly beer, but they don’t turn down the hard stuff much, either).

A good set, then, if not a necessary one. Laks fanciers will, of course, snap it up.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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