|ZDENEK FIBICH (1850-1900) orchestral music Symphony No 1 in F major Op 17 (1883) At Twilight - Idyll (1893) The Romance of Spring Op. 23 (1880) Czech PO/Karel Sejna Supraphon SU 1920-2 001 mono mid-price 60:30||
|ZDENEK FIBICH (1850-1900) Symphony No 2 in E flat major Op. 38 (1893) rec 1951 36:44 Symphony No 3 in E minor Op. 58 (1898) rec 1961 36:43 Czech PO/Karel Sejna Supraphon SU 1921-2 001 mono mid-price 73:34||
My enthusiasm for the music of Fibich was first stirred by a 10 inch thick-vinyl Supraphon LP of the brightly eager and sparkling overture A Night at Karlstein. I bought this in 1972 when, as a student, I saw it cheap in a second-hand shop on Bristol's Gloucester Road. I loved it immediately.
My next meeting with Fibich was in 1980 when BBC Radio 3 broadcast a series of Czech symphonies including the Sejna account of Fibich Symphony No 3. I played my tape of that broadcast repeatedly and eventually the tape distorted. I could never trace the LP and this CD whose existence I only discovered this year was only issued in 1995.
I had one disappointment when I bought another Supraphon identical coupling about five years ago. This was the still available (and stereo!) recording by Jiri Waldhans and Jiri Behlolavek. This has very little of the zip, poetry and high-wire drama that is to be found in the Sejna performances.
While a certain glamour exists around the name and interpretations of Vaclav Talich, Karel Sejna has enjoyed far less celebrity. This is quite undeserved. His eagerly bright-eyed readings of Dvorák, Martinu and Fibich merit greater attention. Their fresh approach communicates vigorously across the years since the various recordings were made.
Speaking of this, these recordings are all mono. The symphony taping dates from 1957 and the two shorter pieces from 1950 in the Domovina Studio, Prague. The symphony was taped in the famed Dvorák Hall of the Rudolfinum, Prague.
Rather like the Supraphon collection of Sejna-conducted Novak tone poems and suites the usual features of a Sejna account are to the fore and happily support each of these performances leaving doubts only about the choral item. The Symphony was said in one review to be rather academic. I disagree. It positively bubbles with enchantment and youthful spirit in this performance. It breathes a cool woodland magic, breezy and natural, and not at all air-conditioned. The sound is somewhat dated but is by no means ancient. The symphony was completed in the same year as Brahms Third Symphony, Dvoráks Scherzo Capriccioso and Bruckners Seventh Symphony. It is much in the school of Schumann and Mendelssohn with light and elfin orchestration to the fore. The cool caressing woodwind writing is notable. The brass has a very slight rasping edge enough to banish any thoughts of an anodyne characterless sound. The second movement has a whip-crack vivacity and the third is introspective. The last - a dramatic allegro con fuoco e vivace begins uncannily like Berliozs Le Corsair - storming and swirling. The pastoral atmosphere occasionally prefigures much later works such as Peterson-Bergers Symphony No. 2. The symphony does not have the utterly infectious mastery of the third symphony but is well worth getting to know and has an instant attraction favourably compared with symphonies by Rubinstein and Raff.
The two substantial fillers each last about a quarter of an hour. At Twilight is consistently enchanting. Again the atmosphere is pastoral though the personable notes tell us that Fibich intended to conjure up life on the island of Zofin in the centre of Prague. In any event it is certainly idyllic with strings to the fore and a texture of slightly roughened silk. There are moments of floating ecstasy and birdsong evocation. The shadows of a waltz hint at the urban scene.
This is quite a discovery! I am afraid that the cantata The Romance of Spring totally defies its subject. The performances, stentorian and altogether raucous singing might well blast the rafters but I am afraid they do little for me and certainly seem to be out of keeping with the pastoral legend portrayed. The full text in Czech, English, German and French is reproduced in the quadrilingual notes. The notes are rather light on facts about the music.
Of course this competes with Petr Dvorskys Brno Supraphon (never transferred from LP to CD) and more relevantly with the full price and rather dully coupled Chandos (Detroit SO/Järvi Chandos CHAN9230 c/w Vysehrad and Vltava - the three symphonies are available in a twofer from Chandos). I do not know the Chandos discs but it was very well received so far as the Fibich was concerned when first issued in 1993. The Supraphon coupling is at mid-price and its disc companions are more interesting and relevant and in the case of At Twilight much more successful. What a pity that the mercurial and vivacious overture A Night at Karlstein was not included. There was certainly space and I believe the recording I am familiar with from 1950s LP was conducted by Sejna. Recommended strongly for the symphony and the idyll.
The second symphony has a perky and rather complex first movement (allegro) which reminded me of Franz Schmidt several times (7:36). However the dominant voice is that of Dvorak. Fibich's birthplace was in woodland Bohemia. His father and grandfather were foresters so we should not be surprised to hear cross-references to Smetana (Bohemia's Woods and Fields) as well as Dvorak. Listen to the charmingly bubbly clarinet at 7:03. The second movement's yearningly reflective adagio is given a concentrated performance. The scherzo opens with a commanding trumpet summons and then rushes dancingly along with the odd nod towards Tchaikovsky. There is a more serious middle movement which provides a centre of gravity amongst the jollity. The finale is a Brahmsian allegro energico where the energy is nicely set off with some dreamy woodland interludes as at 6:00.
Sejna handles the transitions from drama to reflection with great imagination and a sense of continuity. While the second symphony does not compare with the much more impressive third it is entertaining and is often expressively attractive.
The third symphony has four fastish movements contrasted by more dreamy interludes. It begins in mystery and soon aspires to and achieves tragic drama of the type we find in Dvorak Symphonies 7 and 8 and Brahms 3. The Allegro Inquieto is a model movement, dancing and romantic, pregnant with some gloomy destiny apparent in the prominent brass fanfaring at 3:07. Try this movement as a test. If you do not like it then you will not like the disc or the music. Not previously in Fibich have we heard the heavy hand of fate pushing aside the Schumann-like woodland idylls as it does at 9:00 in track 5. Track 6 is an allegro con fuoco uncannily like a similar passage in Dvorak 8. A clarinet paces around the commanding figure given out by full orchestra. This gives place at 2:20  to a swellingly romantic Korngoldian song which also hints at works yet to be written by Franz Schmidt. The vivo e grazioso next movement is at first all elfin skipping and happiness - like a Bohemian Midsummer Night's Dream. This then develops through decidedly Dvorakian treatment into a more serious movement though the lighter element is never distant. Franz Schmidt's symphonic music (especially symphonies 1-3) is also pre-echoed in this music. There are some wonderfully magical and gracious moments here - try 3:00-3:55 . The finale - allegro is marked first maestoso and then vivace. This is a return to the cloud-hung first movement's atmosphere beginning like the sound of some distantly throbbing engine before dashing into passion which is again not far away from Tchaikovsky. At 3:00  there is a recollection of Bruckner. The work ends satisfyingly in Dvorak-like high drama but without the last ounce of personal individuality.
The recordings are vivid and solid mono. The recording of the second symphony is more hissy than that of the third symphony and once offers an untypically blatty brass sound on track 1 7:10. The third symphony sounds very good indeed.
These are two historic mono recordings but for me they sweep the board at least so far as the other Supraphon recording (Waldhans/Behlolavek) is concerned. I have not heard the recently reissued Neeme Jarvi/Detroit SO Chandos recordings yet.
The notes (English, French, German and Czech) are respectable although more about the symphonies, the circumstances of their premieres and other background would have been appreciated.
This is a well and neatly filled disc first issued in 1995. To anyone who enjoys Smetana, Dvorak, Franz Schmidt or Korngold I recommend this disc very strongly. The third symphony is a treasure not just of Czech symphonic music but of the world's heritage of symphonies.
(Symphony No 1)
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