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Zdeněk FIBICH (1850-1900)
Symphony No 2 in E flat, Op.38 [40.16]
At twilight, Op.39 [16.24]
Idyll in B flat for clarinet and orchestra, Op.16 Selanka [6.47]*
* Irvin Venyš (clarinet)
Czech National Symphony Orchestra/Marek Štilec
rec. CzNSO Studio No 1, Prague, 23 October and 9 November 2012
NAXOS 8.573157 [63.36]

Fibich's orchestral works have never really carried westwards across Europe. On listening to the Second Symphony, which in many ways is a very exciting and enjoyable piece, I can see why.
Dvorák and Smetana were his contemporaries and there are moments in the symphony, especially in the finale, when the energy of Smetana and Dvorák is clearly influential. Fibich's studies as a young man in Germany also had a strong effect and Schumann and Brahms are also there in the mix. The melodic spontaneity of Smetana and Dvorák, derived, one suspects from Czech folk music with its occasional modal inflections, gives their work individuality and character. This is rather lacking in Fibich.
Having said that there are 376 quite original solo piano works, which I sometimes hear in exams. They were written in the last decade of his life and are called Moods, Impressions and Reminiscences. More enlightened piano teachers might find out more about these. They "served as a diary of his involvement with Anezk Schulzová his pupil" (booklet notes by Richard Whitehouse) who was the last love of his quite complex love life. These piano pieces also inform and are used in the Second Symphony.
The Symphony falls into four movements with the Scherzo coming third. The only movement, which really retained my attention, was the spacious second which in its various moods definitely reminded me of an expansive Dvorákian rural landscape. The finale has a somewhat ordinary and overly repeated idea and its twelve-minute length is just a touch too long. The sometimes pompous first movement is like much of the symphony: beautifully constructed in the developmental play of the material. As ever with Fibich, it is clearly orchestrated with some beautiful moments but the ideas themselves never have a strong enough profile; at least not sufficient to enable a fully satisfactory experience to emerge.
For me it has always been, on the rare occasions one hears them, the shorter, symphonic poems that have held my attention. This form also seems to have captured Fibich's imagination. He orchestrates them even more sensitively and can often find just the right harmony and phrase to encapsulate the spirit of the story and character. Take for example Toman and the Wood Nymph which the Prague Symphony Orchestra recorded so beautifully in 1994 (Supraphon 111823-2011). It's good that Naxos and Marek Štilec are in the process of recording all of Fibich's orchestral works so that these briefer pieces can be reassessed in more modern recordings.
Two of these shorter pieces are available here both subtitled Idyll. The longer one is At Twilight and if you think that the ideas in this work are generous and especially attractive I would agree. It seems that they are descriptions of members of the Schultz family, friends of Fibich with whom he would walk, presumably at evening tide around the quieter parts of Prague. It is a gorgeously romantic work, almost Wagnerian. Certainly it is in its treatment of the themes and its delicate watercolour qualities well worth getting to know.
The Idyll for clarinet and orchestra is subtitled Selanka. The otherwise detailed and helpful notes do not disclose a meaning for this subtitle and my searches have yielded a blank. It is introspective and wistful and is typical of one aspect of the composer's output. Consequently it is also lyrical and pastoral and links us to the lovely Adagio of the symphony written almost fifteen years later.
The performances surely cannot be bettered. The orchestra and conductor, pictured within, are deeply empathetic to this music. The recording is spacious and beautifully balanced, allowing the music to speak directly. It is well worth the modest investment then but if you still feel unsure then let's wait for the next issue in the series.

Gary Higginson

Other reviews
Volume 1 in this series: Rob Maynard & Nick Barnard
Karol Sejna/Supraphon: Christopher Howell