Sunday 23 February 2014

Marek Štilec and the Czech National Symphony Orchestra provide fine performances of Zdenĕk Fibich’s still somewhat neglected and appealing second symphony on a new release from Naxos

Zdenĕk Fibich (1850-1900) studied in Prague and at the Leipzig Conservatory as well as privately under Jadassohn. He spent periods in Paris and Mannheim before taking a post as a choir trainer in Vilnius. In 1875 he returned to Prague, working at the Provisional Theatre until becoming choirmaster of the Russian Orthodox Church.

After three years he gave up this post and, from 1881, worked exclusively as a composer and private teacher. His reputation as a 19th century Czech composer is second only to that of Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884) and Fibich’s near contemporary, Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904).

Fibich was very prolific; his compositions including choral works, vocal works, seven operas, incidental music for the theatre, orchestral works including three symphonies, chamber works and works for piano.

Fibich’s symphonies have already been recorded on Chandos by Neeme Järvi and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Naxos  have already released Fibich’s First Symphony (8.572985) with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marek Štilec

Now comes Symphony No.2 coupled with two very attractive works, At Twilight – Idyll  for Orchestra and Selanka – Idyll in B flat major for Clarinet and Orchestra with the same forces as well as clarinetist, Irvin Venyš

Fibich’s works are far less Czech in flavour, the composer having been influenced far more by the German tradition. Nevertheless, the Allegro moderato of his Symphony No.2 in E flat major, op.38 (1892-93) does open with a little Dvořákian brass motif within the orchestra. The music also has certain rhythmic elements and a sweeping forward flow that recall Dvořák. The music soon builds to a climax, before falling back for the arrival of the second subject. The music works up to a number of climaxes with the rhythmically flowing main theme re-occurring before heading to the coda where both themes seem to achieve a resolution.

The Adagio is a beautiful movement that opens with a broad melody, not particularly Czech in nature, before a rhythmic idea arrives to contrast with the broad melody.  The opening theme returns as the music reaches a short climax as does the rhythmic theme towards the coda that, nevertheless, ends in calm.

A repeated three note rising motif for trumpet opens the Scherzo: Presto as the orchestra is pointed up by pizzicato strings. More than anywhere else in this work the German influence comes to the fore. An emphatic passage rhythmically raises the dynamics before a country dance like tune is introduced highlighting the Germanic influences in this trio section. Timpani sound as the strings, then a bassoon herald a return of the faster opening theme. The trumpet sounds its opening rising notes as the music gains momentum as it dashes to the coda with some lovely interplay from the woodwind.

The opening of the Finale – Allegro energico hurtles forward with more of a Czech feel before soon slowing to a more thoughtful section. The music again livens up in the terrific melody, so full of Bohemian flavour. At times it sounds as though Fibich is weaving Germanic and Czech themes, so bound up are both elements. When the slow theme again returns there is a lovely woodwind passage. The livelier theme returns, full of energy, though this time broken up by slower, gentler passages before broadening and developing with some lovely slower passages, quite atmospheric in nature. The music eventually builds to a broad, grand climax before drawing together all the various stands to end in a grand coda, with a sudden repeat to catch the unwary.

This stands as a fine work in its own right, with a directness that is very appealing, but it is also important in the understanding of the development of Czech music.

At Twilight – Idyll for Orchestra, Op.39 (1893) rises from pondering basses as the orchestra fully joins in a wistful melody. As this melody is developed, Fibich seems to find full vent for his Czech melodic streak, perhaps because he did not have to worry about symphonic restraints. Soon the music changes to a livelier theme, light with pointed woodwind playfully dancing around the strings. Cellos, then flute arrive in an expectant motif, taken up by the full orchestra, leading the music back to the opening theme. A full blown romantic version of the theme follows with flute and harp bringing a lighter, sprightly feel, full of nature before the return of the romantic string led theme - so Czech. Later cellos and flute appear in an unusual but very effective passage, perhaps depicting birds. The full orchestra takes over as the flute continues its chirrups. There is a brief lull before the romantic melody returns. Cymbal stokes sound as the orchestra gently falls, the lower orchestral sound of the opening returning as the gentle coda arrives.

There is no doubt that this is a gorgeous work that really deserves to be heard.

Clarinetist Irvin Venyš joins the Czech National Symphony Orchestra for Fibich’s Selanka – Idyll in B flat major for Clarinet and Orchestra, Op.16 (1879). The orchestra opens the work but is soon joined by the clarinet in a lovely flowing, gentle melody that has more of a Czech wistfulness, with the clarinet often playing more of a concertante role, adding colour and texture to the orchestral pallet. Venyš provides a lovely weaving of sounds around the orchestra in this most attractive work. After a brief climax the music returns to its gentle nature to end.

Marek Štilec and the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, which celebrated its twentieth anniversary last year, provide fine performances of this still somewhat neglected and appealing music. I found myself unable to get some of the tunes out of my head after listening to this disc. They receive a full and clear recording and there are informative booklet notes.

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