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Fibich: Symphony No. 2; At Twilight; Clarinet Idyll / Venys, Stilec, Czech National Symphony

Fibich / Venys / Czech National Sym Orch / Stilec
Release Date: 01/28/2014 
Label:  Naxos   Catalog #: 8573157   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Zdenék Fibich
Performer:  Irvin Venys
Conductor:  Marek Štilec
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Czech National Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

This is Volume 2 in Naxos’s survey of the orchestral works of Zdenek Fibich (1850–1900). Volume 1, containing the composer’s Symphony No. 1 in F Major with these same forces, does not yet appear to have been reviewed. Oddly, I seem to have acquired Neeme Järvi’s CD of Fibich’s Second and Third symphonies with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra on Chandos, but missed its companion disc containing the First Symphony along with two of the tone poems from Smetana’s Má Vlast . In any event, Chandos has now reissued all three Fibich symphonies in a two-disc budget-priced set, but, for some strange reason, dropped the Smetana in doing so. At least with Järvi’s version of Read more Fibich’s Symphony No. 2 at hand, I have a basis for comparison with this new recording of the work, by Marek Stilec and the Czech National Symphony Orchestra.

As you can see from his dates, Fibich was a very close contemporary of Dvorák (1841–1904), but unlike Dvorák, Fibich was mainly German-trained, studying with Moscheles and Salomon Jadassohn in Leipzig, then Vinzenz Lachner in Mannheim, and spending many of his formative years in Germany, Austria, and France, as well as in his native Bohemia. As a result, Fibich’s music took on a more internationalist tone. In fact, as one begins listening to the composer’s Second Symphony, one is struck by how unlike Dvorák it sounds. If you didn’t know this 1893 work was by Fibich, I’m not sure who you’d guess was its likely author, though you might be inclined to identify certain passages of it as being by Tchaikovsky. There’s a repeating march-like rhythmic motive running throughout the first movement that’s strongly reminiscent of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony of five years earlier.

In any case, whether Fibich’s score reminds you of another composer’s music or not, it stands on its own as a proud work in the tradition of the late 19th-century Romantic symphony, generously endowed with melodic and harmonic riches and orchestrated with an unerring ear for instrumental color.

Stilec and Järvi have fairly different interpretive takes on Fibich’s Second Symphony. Järvi is more relaxed and amiable-sounding in the first movement, playing to the unhurried side of the Allegro moderato marking. His reading is a full minute slower than Stilec’s. In the Symphony’s Adagio , however, the two conductors’ approaches are reversed, with Stilec allowing extra time and space for this beautiful movement to unfold and expand, while Järvi exhibits less patience by almost a minute.

It’s in the next movement, the Scherzo, though, where a more marked difference occurs, and this one cuts very much in Järvi’s favor. The indicated tempo is Presto , and Järvi puts the pedal to the metal, driving his Detroiters through the movement in 8:29. Granted, there’s a slowdown for the Trio section marked Molto meno mosso , but Stilec’s overall timing is 9:53, almost a minute and a half slower. The difference is significant because at Stilec’s slower tempo you hear the Presto in a fast three; whereas at Järvi’s faster pace, you hear it in one, which for a Presto , I think, is more apt. Moreover, even at Stilec’s reduced speed, the Czech orchestra’s strings do not have the coordinated precision of the Detroit’s players.

If it seems thus far that I’m favoring Järvi’s performance, there’s a big “but” coming with respect to the Symphony’s Finale, marked Allegro energico . Järvi’s timing for the movement is 8:38, Stilec’s, 12:21. Assuming that both conductors adopt relatively equal tempos—which they do—there are only two things that can explain such a dramatic difference: Either there’s a repeat Järvi skips or, somewhere along the way, Järvi makes a very large cut. Less damagingly, but no less lamentably, it’s the former rather than the latter. One needn’t trust Richard Whitehouse’s liner note, which cites the exposition repeat, to confirm it. It’s clearly audible, occurring at 2:51, and adding that length of time to Stilec’s performance. The remaining difference between Stilec and Järvi’s Finales can be attributed to minor tempo variations.

As for the recordings, Järvi’s Detroit Symphony Hall has a more open-sounding spacious acoustic than Stilec’s Czech National Symphony Orchestra’s Studio No. 1, but the newer Naxos CD has greater depth of field and more punch.

Whitehouse reckons the 1893 Idyll for Orchestra, At Twilight , as “Fibich at his most Wagnerian in matters of harmony and orchestration.” I don’t really hear it; maybe it does at the very beginning, with its solemn melody slowly unfolding over a richly textured layer of woodwinds, brass, and lower strings, but it soon gives way to a curious ballet-like episode that sounds a bit like Mussorgsky’s unhatched chicks from Pictures at an Exhibition hatching in the magician’s incubator of Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice . It’s not very Wagnerian, and it’s not very idyllic sounding either. The entire piece, which is not short—it lasts over 16 minutes—seems to follow some sort of modified rondo form, in which the opening material returns a number of times, and with each return is extended, expanded upon, and further developed; while in between the returns are contrasting episodes related to the hatching chicks music. It’s an attractive piece and, if nothing else, demonstrates Fibich’s versatility as a composer.

Selanka being the Czech word for “idyll,” Naxos’s album titling of the work is redundant. It should simply be Selanka in Bb Major for Clarinet and Orchestra. Much shorter than the At Twilight Idyll—only 6: 47— Selanka would have made a lovely slow movement for a concerto, if Fibich had ever written one. Composed in 1879, originally for clarinet and piano, the piece is an earlier effort than either of the other two works on the disc. The solo part is beautifully played by clarinetist Irvin Venys.

Here then is a composer from the heart of 19th-century Bohemia, whose music reflects very little of the Czech complexion one hears in Smetana and Dvorák, yet whose voice is one of a distinct musical vocabulary and style uniquely his own. Definitely recommended.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins


Fibich’s Second Symphony reveals a deeper concern with classical tradition than we find in the First. The orchestration, though still colorful, is more austere (no harp, no extra percussion), although in vintage romantic fashion the weight of the symphonic argument falls on the finale. This is the only movement featuring an exposition repeat, which (a testament to both Fibich’s and conductor Marek Stilec’s ability) happily doesn’t impede the music’s onward flow. The main influence here is Schumann, a bit less rhythmically rigid, perhaps, but sort of like a combination of the Spring Symphony’s first movement with the finale of the Rhenish.

At Twilight, subtitled “Idyll for Orchestra,” is a really lovely work with some delightful and forward looking touches of orchestration. Conductor Marek Stilec reveals himself as particularly sensitive here, deftly handling those unisons for flute and harp, or the magical dialog between suspended cymbal and strings after figure 27. Selenaka is another idyll, this time for clarinet and orchestra, with the solo very sympathetically played by Irvin Venys. As in the previous release in this series, the playing is very accomplished, the engineering a touch raw but vivid. There aren’t so many recordings of this music that collectors are spoiled for choice, but even in a more crowded field these performances would command attention. Easily recommended.

-- David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com

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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 2 in E flat major, Op. 38 by Zdenék Fibich
Conductor:  Marek Štilec
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Czech National Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1892-1893; Bohemia 
Idyll, Op. 16 by Zdenék Fibich
Performer:  Irvin Venys (Clarinet)
Conductor:  Marek Štilec
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Czech National Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1879; Bohemia 
At Twilight, Op. 39 "Summer Evening" by Zdenék Fibich
Conductor:  Marek Štilec
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Czech National Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1893; Bohemia 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  2 Customer Reviews )
 Little Known Czech No. 2 January 6, 2015 By owen  ryan (lakewood, CA) See All My Reviews "See my review of Symphony No. 1 for background. The Second and the ''Twilight'' Symphonic Poem were written 15 years later and reveal a maturation in Fibich's compositional skills while still retaining the vigor and melodic character of the First. Henry S. Writes the perfect customer review of this CD so I'll not attempt a further description. In conclusion consider these words by Paul Corfield Godfrey (MusicWeb-Int.): Fibich is ''a writer of no mean accomplishment, who despite his early death, by no means deserves to be overshadowed by his contemporaries Smetana and Dvorak. Indeed those who enjoy the symphonies of the latter will find much to interest them here too.''" Report Abuse
 Superb Recording July 31, 2014 By Henry S. (Springfield, VA) See All My Reviews "Zdenek Fibich's Second Symphony is a Czech showstopper, and this very high quality Naxos recording clearly demonstrates the immediate appeal of Fibich's Czech nationalistic style. The Czech National Symphony Orchestra sounds right at home with this music, producing a deep, impressive sound that does full justice to Fibich's energetic score. The same can be said for the pastoral At Twilight and the Idyll for Clarinet and Orchestra. This lasts piece only runs for just under 7 minutes, but clarinetist Irvin Venys has superb technique and demonstrates the full range of the clarinet in a wonderful performance. Outstanding sound, great performance throughout- in short, an extremely attractive recording. Recommended." Report Abuse
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