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Zdenek FIBICH (1850-1900) Orchestral Works - Volume 1
Symphony No.1 in F major Op.17 (1877-1883) [36:45]
Impressions from the Countryside Op.54 (1897-98) [25:26]
Czech National Symphony Orchestra/Marek Štilec
rec. CNSO Studio No.1 ‘Gallery’, Prague, Czech Republic, 6-7 February 2012
NAXOS 8.572985 [62:18]

One’s response to Zdenek Fibich’s work is going to be predicated upon a musical version of a glass half-full or half-empty. Half full if you hear music that revisits tried and tested forms and formulas without striving for originality or experimentation instead writing attractive and easily appealing pieces. Half-empty if the shades of Smetana or Dvorák hang too heavily with Fibich’s limitations laid bare for all to hear.
Personally, I support the half-full view but even his most ardent sympathisers would have trouble arguing that he is not the lesser composer to those two great masters. Outside the region of his birth I suspect the opportunities to hear his major works in the concert hall - let alone opera house - are all but non-existent. With the recent publication of the 2013 BBC Proms Prospectus I had a quick look for Fibich in the Proms archive. I know this is a far from scientific or balanced instant survey but it is the most complete concert archive of the most consistently imaginative Classical Music festival in the world. Fibich has had one performance of one work - the Overture: A Night at Karlstein (Castle), Op. 26 – and you have to go back to 1906 to find that! Does he merit that degree of neglect? – absolutely not – so all the more thanks for this new disc which purports to be Volume 1 of the orchestral works.
On disc Fibich has fared somewhat better – not that hard in the given circumstances – but choices are still few and far between. Naxos competes with itself in the form of a 1999 disc from Andrew Mogrelia of Symphonies 1 and 2 (8.553699). Järvi recorded all three in Detroit for Chandos and these are still available in various re-combinations. There is also a well-regarded historical set - recorded in the 1950s and early 1960s mainly in mono - from Karel Šejna. The only other version I have heard is again on Supraphon (32CO-1091) from Petr Vronský and the Brno State Philharmonic – an analogue recording dating from 1984. So the field - together with Bohemia’s Woods - is pretty much open. The conductor is Marek Štilec – in his mid-twenties when this recording was made – at the helm of the Czech National Symphony Orchestra.
The disc does not start very auspiciously – Fibich was undoubtedly finding his symphonic feet when he wrote this firstsymphony at the age of 27. Form, and his handling of it is not as fluent as it would become. This is most apparent in the rather over-extended serious opening movement. Pastoral-Heroic is the most succinct definition I can come up with. The themes, as so often with Fibich, have echoes of Brahms out of Dvorák but his handling of them is just too earnest and academic. Štilec is at his least impressive in the entire disc here. The music simply plods along. Timings rarely tell the whole story but Štilec stretches this movement out to 16:14 in comparison to Vronský’s 12:10. This slower tempo makes the entire work ‘front-end’ heavy – the final three movements barely reach the twenty minute mark in total. I have to say Vronský does not feel that much faster. With no score to hand I wonder if a judicious cut has been applied? Crucially the Brno performance has much more light and shade as well as a fluent rubato. Štilec is painfully literal. In this he is not helped by a cinematic recording style which gives the orchestra a rather clinical glare albeit allowing a lot of inner detail to register. It also deprives them of being able to play very quietly. Not that the Supraphon engineering in 1984 would have won any awards but it does allow for a more atmospheric and integrated sound from the orchestra.
Fortunately, things do improve significantly from that movement on. In part I am sure this is because Fibich’s writing is better. The Scherzo is placed second and while not overtly Bohemian in the way that similar movements by Dvorák were, it captures the essence of a folk-polka most appealingly. Again Vronský is substantially faster but Štilec’s weightier approach simply feels earthier rather than stuck in the mud. I do like the fact that the Czech National Symphony Orchestra is audibly an orchestra from this part of the world. That might seem like a banally obvious thing to say but I lament the loss of regional individuality in the sound good orchestras make. These Czech wind and brass players are clearly perpetuating the performance traditions of their musical ancestors and to my ears that makes it all the better.
Without a doubt Fibich is at his best when he is trying to be least formal. The slow movement is an adagio with a sub-heading alla romanza. In essence it becomes a most appealing song-without-words with bardic harp chords accompanying woodwind-led songs. I particularly like the duetting clarinets around the 2:00 mark (track 3). Štilec is very good here at moulding the musical phrase although the relative glare of the recording and the focus it gives to the front desks of the strings diminishes the charm – the ‘package’ presented by Vronský with fractionally more poise and a more integrated orchestral picture is again to be preferred. Štilec does win out in the festive finale. Not Fibich’s finest compositional hour as there are rather too many sequential scalic passages that smack of page-filling. At least here the brashness of the recording, the virtuosity of the playing and Štilec’s injection of extra pace makes one forget or at least forgive the shortcomings even if Vronský’s presto coda brings his interpretation to an exciting close.
The ‘filler’ – Impressions from the Countryside Op.54 - proves to be the reason collectors might well consider this disc. Douglas Bostock did record this work on ClassicO CLASSCD255 with the Carlsbad Symphony Orchestra. Again, that’s a performance I have not heard and one that is currently available as a download or an expensive secondhand CD. The Orchestral Suite as an independent musical form is something of an anachronism today. Yet, in the 19th Century it provided composers with a vehicle to write a set of related movements without the ‘burden’ of symphonic expectation. In many ways this lighter remit suited a composer such as Fibich very well. In the twenty years since he wrote the First Symphony – and just two before he died – Fibich had honed his craft significantly and had a far better sense of his own strengths as a composer. These are all evident here: assured if not revelatory orchestration, an appealing melodic gift and just enough harmonic spice to prevent his writing sounding superficial or trite. Ultimately this might be considered high class light music but this is not a pejorative remark in my mind. Perhaps his younger contemporaries such as Suk or Novak would expand the emotional and technical boundaries of such Suites but Fibich sets himself a goal which is well achieved.
Each of the movements has a simple almost naďve title but Fibich skilfully does not write music inappropriate to either that title or the scale implied. So the opening Moonlit Night is a gentle study in flowing string writing with definite echoes of Peer Gynt. Perhaps here Štilec shows his inexperience by being too literal and again the fluorescent-tube-lit recording allows less poetry in than one imagines exists. The second movement is simply called Country Dance in the manner of a Sousedská beloved of Dvorák in his sets of Slavonic Dances. Here one is really able to relish the characterful orchestral playing. Štilec finds good contrasts in the instrumental interplay. I love the mellow horn sound. They feature again at the opening of the third movement; Highlands Ho. The gentle horn-calls and flowing lower strings inevitably evoke Smetana but without any great detriment to Fibich. The climax is rather imposing perhaps evoking a mountain vista before sinking swiftly back into the hushed atmosphere of the opening. The closing two movements are substantially longer than the three that precede them. The penultimate one is called Fireside Talk. This opens with a perky clarinet led dance theme in ľ time. Quite what the story being told around the fire is I can’t imagine. This movement is clearly sectionalised – different stories perhaps? – all characterised by a far lighter and more subtle orchestration than Fibich employed in the Symphony. I particularly enjoyed a mournful tale told by a beautifully woody bassoon (track 8 3:40) over gently pulsing strings. For me this is the highlight of the disc – some enchanting playing meeting a moment of compositional inspiration lovingly orchestrated. The suite closes with a Village Dance. This is not immediately the high-spirited affair one might assume it would be. In fact Fibich treats the melodic material rather more academically than seems wholly appropriate. His technical resources have by now developed to such a degree that they allow him to explore the potential of the music much more effectively than in the earlier work. It is a slightly downbeat ending to the suite with the tacked-on coda sounding more dutiful than inspired.
Ultimately a solid rather than thrilling opening to this series but one with enough interest to encourage a collector to return. It is to be hoped that greater interpretative finesse and recording subtlety will reveal unknown strengths in this composer as the series develops.
Nick Barnard