LAKS Chamber Works
Volume 3 of the ARC Ensemble’s Music in Exile series profiles Szymon Laks, who moved to Paris from Warsaw in the 1920s but was sent in 1942 to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he immersed himself in musical activities and was spared death and hard labour as a result.
The experience must have been horrific even so. But it’s hard to say with any certainty how it infiltrated Laks’s music. He was always a pragmatic composer; his background working in cafés and on ships meant his writing in Auschwitz could draw on the ‘odeon’ technique of orchestrating for any permutation of instruments. The pre-war Sonatina for piano (1927) is the most interesting work here; four movements journeying from an austere Moderato built on stringent neoclassical counterpoint to a big-boned Allegro with shades of Debussy’s modality.
Laks’s String Quartet No 4 (1962) reveals his geographical loyalties most clearly, with Slavic melodies cast in light, elegant French style and played with an attractive sepia tone. Sometimes the harmonies close in on themselves, edging towards the pain of the post-traumatic stress Laks clearly experienced. His Passacaille (1945) speaks most clearly of that.
There is similar focus and technique at play in the Concertino (1965) for three winds, but it can sound like a study. I hear rather more than the ‘cheerful divertissement’ that the booklet note describes in Laks’s Piano Quintet (1967), an arrangement of the String Quartet No 3 from the pivotal year of 1945. There is argument in the opening Allegro, something chilling in the ghostly Lento, sure signs of the composer’s rhythmic (popular) modernity in the Vivace and even a fugue in the finale. ARC play the piece with an ear for both the shifting moods and the technical rigour. But it’s hard to get away from the idea that while Laks’s plenteous abilities made him an indispensable 20th-century musical functionary in the moment, in the long term he might not have had an awful lot to say.