Fantastic composer. Fantastic music. Fantastic playing. And 83 minutes of glorious Chandos sound at its finest. Wow.
Listening to this disc, and as the final notes faded into silence, I said to myself, "I really like this composer".
I just recently became acquainted with the music of Szymon Laks via a CD of his 3 published string quartets (#3-5), played by the Messages Quartet on the Dux label. And they are simply amazing. It is exciting to have another recording of #4 here on Chandos, especially when played with such character by the ARC Ensemble. And the rest of the music on this program just gets better and better as it goes. These are all premier recordings (although the Dux recording of all 3 String Quartets appeared the same year).
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The ARC Ensemble (Artists of the Royal Conservatory) is comprised of senior faculty of the Glenn Gould School in Toronto, Canada. This is the third volume in a series of chamber music discs recorded by this group for Chandos, each with the theme "Music in Exile". The other composers represented are Paul Ben-Haim (Vol. 1) and Jerzy Fitelberg (Vol. 2). I have only sampled the music on those first two discs and was not especially drawn to them. But this third disc, music by Szymon Laks, is another matter entirely.
Listening, I was completely enthralled by all this music. And I am utterly blown away by the superb playing of the ARC Ensemble, as recorded here. This composer could not hope to have better advocates for his music than this fabulous group of musicians. Their playing is so characterful, gracious, dancing, full of charm and bursting in vivid tonal colors, the music just comes alive! Just listen to clarinetist Joaquin Valdepenas and bassoonist Frank Morelli in the Divertimento and, especially the Concertino. What marvelous players, both of them, with gorgeous, rich, wooden tone, and buoyant articulation. The clarinet is never bright or edgy (or worst of all, fruity) and the bassoon is always perfectly focused. The pianists are excellent as well. And all of this music-making has the benefit of superb Chandos recorded sound - even if it is "just" good old-fashioned CD and not the luxurious SACD treatment. This is one of the best CD-only recordings I've yet heard from the Chandos label.
The Divertimento for Violin, Clarinet, Bassoon and Piano is delightful. (There is also a version of it for Flute, Violin, Cello and Piano.) But wait till you hear the Concertino for Oboe, Clarinet and Bassoon, which comes later. It's even better - quite virtuosic and reminiscent of Poulenc - bubbling with charm, whit and zest. And best of all, is the final work presented here, the Quintet for Piano and Strings - which is essentially a divertimento itself, utilizing Polish folk songs. Interestingly, this piece is a reworking of his Third String Quartet (some 20+ years later). I thought it sounded familiar! The Quintet version is less folksy, more gossamer, lighter textured and more colorfully orchestrated. And perhaps a little less emotionally moving in the Lento. Both versions are wonderful.
Laks was born in Warsaw in 1901. His music has strong Ravel influences, heard strikingly in the Fourth String Quartet (which is rhythmic and with faint jazz influences) and Divertimento. Elsewhere, especially in the Quintet, there can be heard a jaunty Jewish flavoring, where Laks really establishes an even more distinctive musical voice.
Remarkably, Laks is such an inspired and accomplished composer, all of his music is endlessly varied, individual and creatively unique. Listening to the 3 String Quartets on the Dux CD mentioned above, all the chamber works on this Chandos, and his Sinfonietta for chamber orchestra found on another recent Dux release, not once could I discern such similarities among them that I could positively identify the composer as being Laks. Each work is a unique creation, each with something interesting and musically inspired to say. This is a composer whose music speaks not only to the mind, but the heart as well.
Chandos once again delivers with unusual repertoire, outstanding playing, extremely generous playing times, and superb recorded sound. Remember when 75 minutes was the maximum length a CD could play? Well this disc plays for 83'04! I don't know how they do it, but it is simply marvelous from beginning to end.