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Zdenĕk FIBICH (1850-1900)
Symphony no. 1 in F, op. 17 (1876-1883), Symphony no. 2 in E flat, op. 38 (1892), Symphony no. 3 in E minor, op. 53 (1898), At Twilight, op. 39 (1893), A Springtime Tale, op. 33* (1880)
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Karel Šejna, with * Drahomíra Tikalová (soprano), Karel Kalaš (bass) and the Prague Philharmonic Choir
Recorded in the Domovina Hall, Prague (except Symphony no. 3) and the Rudolfinum, Prague (Symphony no. 3) on February 27th 1950 (Symphony no. 1), May 28th-30th 1950 (Symphony no. 2), January 23rd, 24th and 27th 1961 (Symphony no. 3), April 11th 1950 (At Twilight), 1950 (A Springtime Tale)
SUPRAPHON SU 3618-2 902 [2 CDs: 60:15+73:21]

Listen to the opening of Symphony no. 1, with its pastoral wind, its inviting horn-calls and its sense of forward movement and tell me if this is not lovelorn romantic symphonic writing par excellence. There is an ardently sung second subject just over two minutes in and the movement, beautifully crafted, maintains its promise, not least thanks to the poetry and vitality with which Karel Šejna handles it. By and large the whole symphony makes a satisfying whole though the actual thematic material, sumptuously and masterfully handled as it is, becomes more rudimentary later.

Fibich’s was the music of infatuation, literally so in the last ten years of his life, which were dominated by his relationship with and adoration for his pupil Anežka Schulzová, a relationship documented almost daily in his extensive series of piano miniatures "Moods, Impressions and Reminiscences". These would seem to show that he remained locked in that exalted state of first infatuation which normally either matures into something deeper or, more often than not, fades into nothing, and the pieces themselves became storehouses of thematic material which he developed in his larger works, including the Second and Third Symphonies.

Infatuation and obsession are closely related and I now ask the reader to hear my second sample, the opening of Symphony no. 2 . There is the same sense of symphonic movement as before, paragraphs are masterfully constructed, the sound-world is sumptuous. But this little theme, based on two notes, has to bear the weight of a virtually monothematic first movement and then, since this was the first Czech cyclical symphony, pervades the remaining movements as well. Is it strong enough to do so, or does it express only too well the lack of objectivity which obsession/infatuation can induce? Much of the remaining material amounts to arpeggios and scales and so I cannot agree with the booklet-note writer that this is Fibich’s finest symphony. Some commentators have found an Elgarian tone in the slow movement; maybe, but Elgar’s best themes can usually be remembered afterwards. All the same, I found subsequent hearings tended to increase my liking for the work rather than the reverse. Once again, Šejna’s ardour and commitment are infectious.

But now listen to the opening of the Third Symphony. Lovers of Sibelius will note that Fibich here achieves (quite independently, in view of the date) a similar sense of a steady journey across a variegated landscape. The music is always in motion, thanks to ostinato accompanying figures which start up in one section of the orchestra just as they are dying down in another, and it is always growing. This movement seems to me a quite remarkable achievement. The next begins with what we evidently have to accept as a Fibich characteristic: a rather stereotyped baroque-based figure, albeit richly harmonised. But this soon gives way to a gloriously sung Adagio. The remaining movements have plenty of dash even when the themes themselves are sometimes rudimentary but all things considered this third symphony makes a very satisfying whole, Fibich’s sense of forward movement and orchestral colour more than outweighing any thematic weaknesses.

"At Twilight” was another Anežka-inspired piece, recalling the composer’s walks with Anežka and her father on Žofin Island. It is a remarkable expression of first infatuation. Although Fibich’s music is not generally so recognisably Czech as that of Smetana or Dvořák, the latter’s Water Goblin and Wild Dove both seem to be present on the island. However, these are anticipations, not echoes. Those whose only knowledge of Fibich is restricted to his Počme for violin and piano should be pleased to encounter it in its original form – the violinist Jan Kubelík was responsible for its extrapolation as a separate piece. The idea was that a single violinist could bring a more personal expression to it than massed violins, but perhaps he reckoned without the unanimity and expressive nuance of this orchestra of Kubelíks and Ševčíks and Josef Suks under Šejna’s inspired direction. The set is completed by an earlier choral piece whose legendary tone looks forward to Sibelius’s choral writing.

At the time of many of these recordings Karel Šejna (1896-1982) was briefly conductor of the Czech Philharmonic (1949-1950), following Kubelík’s departure on account of his anti-communist sympathies and prior to the appointment of Karel Ančerl. Perhaps one day the full story of the political-musical machinations of those times will one day be told, including as they do the slander campaign against the great Vacláv Talich. And, without disrespect for Ančerl, one wonders why such a fine conductor as Šejna was allowed so brief a tenure. However, his particular sympathy for Fibich must have been recognised, since he was called back in 1961 to complete the cycle. The 1950/1 recordings, despite a certain amount of distortion, are full-blooded and enjoyable while the Third Symphony gets a stereo recording that sounds pretty good for its date. Later Czech recordings of this music have been few and not very highly rated; if you want modern digital sound the three symphonies are available from Chandos by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under Neeme Järvi. Nos. 1 and 2 have also been recorded for Naxos by Andrew Mongrelia. Personally I find that the captivating sound of the Czech Philharmonic of the day, with its rustic winds, thrilling brass and soaring strings, together with Šejna’s special insights, more than compensate for any shortcomings in the sound. I must point out, though, that the Second Symphony plays about a quarter of a tone above pitch. I am aware that in Eastern European countries of those days a higher tuning pitch was sometimes used, but on the other hand the First Symphony was recorded at about the same time and here the pitch is right.

The set is enthusiastically recommended to lovers of romantic symphonies and is available at superbudget price..

Christopher Howell


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