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Zdeněk FIBICH (1850-1900)
Orchestral Works - Volume 3
Othello, Op. 6 [16:59]
Záboj, Slavoj and Luděk, Op. 37 [17:52]
Toman a lesní panna (Toman and the Wood Nymph, Op. 49 [12:32]
Bouře (The Tempest), Op. 46 [11:39]
Vesna (Spring), Op. 13 [13:03]
Czech National Symphony Orchestra/Marek Štilec
rec. CNSO Studios, Hostivar, Prague, Czech Republic, 13 March & 3 April 2013
NAXOS 8.573197 [72:27]

This is a most attractive collection and is much more than a merely worthy successor to the first two volumes. It's the first without a symphony. The first two are 8.572985 and 8.573157. My fingers are crossed for a stunning next volume, presumably to include the Third Symphony.

What is it about Fibich that captivates? I can tell you which recordings did it for me. Let's take two. The first is his Third Symphony which, rather like Louis Glass's miraculous Fifth Symphony and Madetoja's Second, needs to be heard in the right hands. For me those hands were at work in a Supraphon mono from the 1950s: Karel Sejna conducting. The performance is lithe, pointedly delineated and flashes and flickers with energy. I have heard some less prepossessing versions including that by Järvi and the Detroit Symphony which takes the way of the limp lettuce. Get the Sejna - ancient though it is. Next there is the gaunt bitterness and tragedy of the epic Hippodamia trilogy for narrator and orchestra - tragedy writ large and craggy.

The works on this third disc in the series are an extension of the Dvořák tone poems. Fibich even wrote an Othello which comes first here. This one is more about romance (14:48) than about tragedy although that darker streak is present though deeply subdued. The style is something between Dvořák and Schumann - more Dvořák in its span of moods. The premiere in 1873 was conducted by Smetana whose own tone poems are also echoed. It ends in a gentle self-effacing gesture rather than with a dark crowd-pleasing grimace.

Two years later came Zaboj, Slavoj and Ludek. This was well thought of by Smetana whose own Richard III is brought to mind by the brass fanfares. It ends most effectively in contrasting textures of harp and full orchestra.

All the works here are the products of a composer in his 20s or early 30s; Toman and the Wood Nymph likewise. This work is taut and has more engaging mystery about it than the others. The supernatural subject matter must have caught and held his attention with more force. It's also about five minutes shorter than its predecessor. Allowing for a few moments of Smetana-like bombast this can be explored with confidence by those who are already keen on the Dvořák Erben tone poems. It too is strong on the grim and the supernatural. There are also some proto-Rimskian moments where delicacy and steely determination meet as in the episodes between 6:30 and 8:12. The work ends once again with gentle episodes contrasted with loud drama. Here he again shows the same mettle demonstrated at the close of Othello.

The Tempest takes us back to Shakespeare. Fibich was clearly fascinated as he also wrote an opera on The Tempest in 1893-94; well worth hearing, I would guess. The tone poem is concise. The invention is strong - almost Tchaikovskian - a composer who wrote his own tone poem on The Tempest. The invention in the Fibich work is tense and very satisfying. Melodic ideas are memorable and are handled with evident relish by Stilec. This is a work you will want to return to. It ends with seething and storm-tossed conviction.

Vesna - Spring - stands to one side from the other four pictures. This has more in common with the rural contemplative bucolic idylls of Impressions from the Countryside and the shorter works that are coupled with the Second Symphony on 8.573157. It stands in the branches of the same family tree as Suk's Ripening and Glazunov's idyllic Seventh Symphony and his own Vesna. Fibich shows himself sympathetic to Smetana's and Dvorak's folk dances (7.31 and 7:58).

The recordings are agreeably detailed and with plenty of dynamic contrast.

The notes are by Richard Whitehouse and are in English only. Pity we are not told what the title of the Zaboj work refers to.

A separate note on the performing materials assures listeners as to the authenticity of the sources and the application of all repeats. This has also apparently resulted in the removal of distortions that have become part of the Fibich performing tradition such as it is.

All the works here have been recorded before and can be tracked down on Alto (Douglas Bostock) and Supraphon but no one else offers this combination of music. Add to this those assurances about authenticity of materials and execution. By the way, there is a Zdenék Fibich website.

All who are already friends of Ma Vlast and the Dvorak late tone-poems will want to hear this and can expect to find new friends.

Rob Barnett