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Zdeněk FIBICH (1850-1900)
A night at Karlštejn castle, overture (1886) [10:10]
Comenius, festival overture (1892) (12:09]
The jew of Prague, overture* (1871) [6:30]
Hedy, op.43, ballet music (concert version)* (1894-1895) (17:42]
Hippodamia's death, op.33, march (1891) [5:28]
Prologue to the opening of the New Czech Theatre, tableau vivant* (1876) [2:06]
The great musical monograph of the building of the National Theatre, tableau vivant* (1881] (5:53]
Music for the reopening of the National Theatre, tableau vivant* (1883) [3:12]
Music for the celebration of the 300th anniversary of the birth of Jan Amos Comenius, tableau vivant* (1892) [2:33]
Czech National Symphony Orchestra/Marek Štilec
rec. CNSO Studios, Hostivař, Prague, 2013
*World premiere recordings
NAXOS 8.573310 [66:00]

Even composers of undoubted genius have their off-days: listen, for instance, to Beethoven's Wellingtons Sieg. It should come as no surprise, therefore, to find that their somewhat less gifted colleagues could also produce some easily forgettable pieces.

This disc is the fourth and latest release in the Naxos series (Volume 1 ~ Volume 2 ~ Volume 3) that will encompass all of Fibich's orchestral works. As well as three overtures, some ballet music and a march, it includes what Richard Whitehouse's invariably useful booklet notes categorise as four "occasional pieces for theatre projects". All written for specific one-off occasions, it's probable that even their composer assumed that they wouldn't be heard again after their first performance. After all, giving one of your compositions the title Music for the reopening of the National Theatre does tend to suggest that you're not expecting it to be played with any degree of frequency at other times.

The ephemeral nature of those four works is further emphasised by the fact that they were composed to support a 19th century art form - the tableau vivant, featuring mute and static performers adopting fixed "dramatic" poses on stage for a few moments, often accompanied by appropriately atmospheric music - that has since completely disappeared. Today Tableaux vivants are remembered, if at all, only in their final incarnation when they were used to legitimise "artistic" soft porn performances in a few theatres in London's Soho district and elsewhere before stage nudity became accepted in the 1960s.

Those four tracks are all world premiere recordings and it is not hard to see why that's the case. The format of the tableau vivant required any supporting music to be both self-effacing, so as not to distract from the primarily visual nature of the entertainment, and succinct: there's a definite time limit, after all, to the performers' ability to remain successfully immobile without suffering an attack of cramp or passing out. In spite of those limitations, Fibich produces music that is, at the very least, both atmospheric and competently crafted. Even Prologue to the opening of the New Czech Theatre manages to make something of an impression, although, at only a few seconds over two minutes in length, it struggles to develop into anything very memorable - but, then, wasn't that the whole point?

The first five tracks on this disc offer, on the other hand, more substantial music with higher aspirations. The pieces are certainly well crafted and each has its own attractive features. That said, the three overtures, in particular, ultimately lack the spark of originality and/or the memorable fibre required to make more than a fleeting impression. They are variously animated and lively, suggesting that A night at Karlštejn castle wouldn't necessarily provide a good sleep; stately and flowing in an appropriately stirring tribute to the 17th century Czech educational pioneer Comenius; and surprisingly vigorous in the case of that to Josef Jiri Kolar’s tragedy The jew of Prague. Although that last of the three is the most effective, largely because it is more compact and direct, none really sticks in the mind from its first hearing in the way that, to take a single contemporaneous example, the overture Donna Diana by Fibich's fellow Prague composer Emil von Rezniček does.

The disc's fourth track - at nearly 18 minutes in length the longest on the disc - gives us an opportunity to hear Fibich's only attempt at ballet music, written to provide a dance interlude in his opera Hedy. Melodically attractive and well executed, it suggests that he might have enjoyed success as a composer in that particular sphere. It is followed by a brief march from the melodrama Hippodamia's death that is notable for some inventive orchestration.

This Fibich complete orchestral edition is clearly a labour of love for the Czech National Symphony Orchestra and its accomplished conductor Marek Štilec, whose enthusiastic and thorough re-examination of the scores has led to several significant discoveries and consequent revisions. Even faced, as in several of these tracks, with some distinctly uninspired music, their performances continue to demonstrate both their own artistic and technical expertise and their deep commitment to the composer. The typically clear Naxos engineering helps considerably by ensuring that the artists are able to make the most convincing possible case, even for these sometimes less than memorable scores.

Rob Maynard