Zdeněk FIBICH (1850-1900)
Symphony no.1 in F major, op.17 (1883) [36:45]
Impressions from the countryside, op.54 (1878) [25:26]
Czech National Symphony Orchestra/Marek Štilec
rec. CNSO studio no.1 ‘Gallery’, Prague, 6-7 February 2012
NAXOS 8.572985 [62:18]
The account of Fibich’s first symphony that has been generally the best regarded was set down as long ago as February 1950. The performers were the Czech Philharmonic under its then chief conductor, Karel Sejna. The recording is still available as part of their two-disc traversal of the composer’s three symphonies (Supraphon SU 3618-2).
Listening to that recording today, it is obvious why it has, in almost all respects, stood the test of time. In spite of the vicissitudes of the second world war - not least the purging of its Jewish players - the 1950 Czech Philharmonic was still distinctive. Its style and standards were still recognisably those of the orchestra of Václav Talich, their chief conductor 1919-1931 and 1933-1941, who had established them firmly on the world’s musical map. The pleasurable task of listening to some of their pre-war recordings - still widely available thanks to the Naxos Historical label- confirms that essential musical continuity.
Moreover, in performing this music the orchestra was very much on its own home turf. Musicologists - “who can read music but can’t hear it” - Sir Thomas Beecham - may claim that Fibich was more cosmopolitan in outlook than his more “nationalist” contemporaries Dvořák and Smetana. However, to my ears, at least, the opening movement of this F major symphony is pretty well indistinguishable from something by the New World’s composer in full lyrical flow.
The conductor is the third element in the 1950 account’s success. Karel Sejna (1896-1982) was a stalwart of a national musical life which was much more intense and inward-looking than we are used to today. It may be hard to believe, for example, that in the 1920s there actually was such a thing as a Czechoslovak Railway Workers Symphony Orchestra, but there was - and Sejna was its conductor. Virtually all of his training and career took place in his homeland, a fact reflected in the huge degree of authenticity he brings to his recordings of Czech music.
The 1950s Eastern European technology means, though, that this enjoyable and thoroughly idiomatic account of Fibich’s first symphony understandably shows its age. As well as having been recorded in mono, the overall sound is rather opaque and many of the score’s delightful inner felicities are thereby somewhat obscured. My own copy, in spite of boasting that it has been “24 bit digitally re-mastered”, even boasts a faint but immensely annoying pre-echo on one of its filler tracks: the attractive A springtime tale for soprano, bass, choir and orchestra.
Such sonic deficiencies were certainly not in evidence in January 1993 when Neeme Järvi recorded a new DDD account of the first symphony with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (CHAN 9230, with the second and third symphonies following a year later on CHAN 9328). While that was certainly a competent and welcome addition to the rather thin Fibich symphonic discography, it also lacked its Czech predecessor’s sheer character. As a typically cosmopolitan late 20th century conductor, Järvi inevitably failed to match Sejna’s intuitive grasp of the native Czech musical idiom. Moreover, the playing of the Detroit orchestra, very fine as it was, offers a useful illustration of the erosion of distinctively national orchestral characteristics that occurred as the world became more open in the late 20th century. While individual players furthering their careers in a worldwide free market no doubt found that to be a positive development, it is undeniable that it also helped create some blandly anonymous orchestras displaying few individual or “national” characteristics. While that may have been, in certain aspects, a good thing - although I, for one, have a soft spot for braying Soviet brass sections (me too. Ed.), in many others the baby has certainly been thrown out with the bathwater.
The orchestra featured on this new Naxos recording, the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, did not even exist until after the fall of the Iron Curtain and is, moreover, often used in recording film scores and other non-classical work. The conductor, Marek Štilec, was only 26 years old when he led this performance. With a 21st century musical training and background and a personal inclination towards contemporary scores, he might well be expected to have a broader and less “nationalistic” outlook than someone of Sejna’s generation. As a result, I was not expecting much innate empathy with Fibich’s music from either orchestra or conductor.
I could not, however, have been more wrong. Štilec and his band play here with a hugely attractive “rustic” tone that is entirely appropriate to these scores and that entirely escapes Järvi’s Detroit orchestra. In that respect, the cover pictures of the respective discs are very apt: Chandos depict an urban image of Prague’s beautiful Charles Bridge while Naxos has chosen an idealised representation of the Czech countryside. Fibich’s father had been a forester and the young composer had spent much of his childhood in a remote lodge deep in the Czech countryside at VŠebořice. In spite of the occasional dramatic flourish that never amounts to much, the symphony’s opening movement is essentially bucolic in character. Within just a few moments, the CNSO’s deliciously fruity woodwinds have transported us magically away into the Bohemian countryside. By the time the memorably lyrical second subject comes along (2:06) I was hooked in a way that Järvi’s account had never managed to achieve in its two decades on my shelves.
Štilec’s account is altogether lighter and more airy than that of his rivals, fully in keeping with the emphasis he places on the score’s pastoral elements. His is also an appropriately gentler and more relaxed approach, with an overall timing of 36:45 that comfortably exceeds both Järvi’s (34:13) and Sejna’s (30:05). Thankfully the engineering team of Václav Roubal and Karek Soukeník has done a superb job of keeping the sound crystal clear - though my more critical colleague Nick Barnard describes it as having a “clinical glare” - so that all the woodland rustlings and flutterings that Štilec so carefully teases out can be fully appreciated.
The coupling on the Naxos disc, the op.54 Impressions from the countryside, gives Fibich full rein for his romanticism and is in this context an entirely apt one. It is equally well played. It is a shame, though, that, with a total disc time of just 62:18, the opportunity to add another track was missed.
This is apparently the first disc of a series of eight that will include all Fibich’s orchestral scores recorded by the same forces and that will appear over the next few years. I suspect we may well be in for a few musical revelations in that time and certainly look forward to hearing the next instalment from these intriguing and talented new performers.
A hugely attractive rustic approach entirely appropriate to these scores.
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