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Zdeněk FIBICH (1850-1900)
Orchestral Music - vol. 4
A Night at Karlštejn Castle, Overture (1886) [10:10]
Comenius, Festival Overture (1892) [12:09]
The Jew of Prague: Tragedy - Overture (1871) [6:30]
Hedy, Op. 43: Ballet music (1894-5) [17:42]
Hippodamia's Death: Melodrama, 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, October 2013
NAXOS 8.573310 [66:00]

Zdeněk Fibich has long held a place on my short list of Great Neglected Composers. From my first hearing, I was entranced by his flair for orchestral colour, his sunny but not unclouded musical disposition, and his gift for melody, more spontaneous than that of the better-known and better-esteemed Josef Suk. The sometimes strong resemblances to Dvořák - the triumphal coda of Comenius, the livelier dances in the Hedy sequence, the frequent recourse to woodwind chorales - more likely reflect a common Czech musical "accent" rather than any direct influence.

The three symphonies have accounted for most of Fibich's limited recorded exposure: a smattering of native productions (review), and Neeme Järvi's less stylish but richer-sounding Chandos cycle (review). This volume of the Naxos series takes in a variety of the composer's works in shorter forms. Reviews of earlier volumes in the series can be found here: Volume 1 ~ Volume 2 ~ Volume 3.

It's the pieces that look to be of least consequence - the four occasional pieces composed to accompany tableaux vivants - that represent the composer at his most appealing. Fibich infuses this ceremonial, processional music with fervent breadth, enlivening the chorale-like themes with a lively interplay of colours and textures. The March from the Hippodamia's Death incidental music (review) offers more of the same, along with some quirky harmonic turns that point the way to the marches of Walton and Bliss, and what sounds like an ending or two too many.

Of the three overtures, the first two are concert pieces, while The Jew of Prague is part of the incidental music for a play by Josef Jiří Kolár. Quiet, peremptory horn-calls at the start of A Night at Karlštejn Castle open into questing phrases and harmonies, which, again, juxtapose varying orchestral timbres. The main Allegro is cheerful and confident, set off by lighter-textured passages. Turbulence momentarily threatens to derail the piece in the home-stretch, but it resolves happily.

Comenius may be a "festival overture", but its extended introduction is pensive; the agitated faster section is clean-limbed and purposeful. The Jew of Prague begins with a horn solo that veers into chromatic, searching chorales, punctuated here and there by quietly ominous trumpet calls. A generic transitional tutti at 1:51 is mercifully brief; the buoyant main Allegro recovers buoyancy and drive.

The grim, assertive minor-key start of the Hedy sequence is most unusual for an operatic ballet. The play of woodwinds against strings helps to lighten the sonority, while the movement's coda at 3:50 is boisterous in the Slavonic-dance style. The most effective numbers are the final two: a lyrical passage in 3/4 time, opening into a gentle waltz which gradually becomes more aggressive; and another rousing Slavic dance for the full orchestra.

Marek Štilec's performances are sympathetic, and the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, noted primarily for the Prague Proms summer concerts, plays with enthusiasm and understanding - it has the right musical "accent". There are underpowered moments, however. The unison strings at the start of Comenius sound reined-in, and, later in the piece, their attacks could use more point and precision. Nor do the horns always cut through as they should: the moving chords at 2:15 of the Hippodamia's Death march barely register.

The sound is fine, registering wind solos vividly within the texture; the occasional lack of presence probably inheres in the playing. Despite my reservations, I'm glad to have this.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.

Previous review: Rob Maynard



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