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Fibich: Symphony No 1; Impressions From The Countryside / Stilec, Czech National Symphony

Release Date: 04/30/2013 
Label:  Naxos   Catalog #: 8572985   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Zdenék Fibich
Conductor:  Marek Štilec
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Czech National Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 2 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

A hugely attractive rustic approach entirely appropriate to these scores.

The account of Fibich’s first symphony that has been generally the best regarded was set down as long ago as February 1950. The performers were the Czech Philharmonic under its then chief conductor, Karel Sejna. The recording is still available as part of their two-disc traversal of the composer’s three symphonies.
Listening to that recording today, it is obvious why it has, in almost all respects, stood the test of time. In spite of the vicissitudes of the second world war - not least the purging of its Jewish players - the 1950 Czech Philharmonic was still distinctive. Its style and standards were still recognisably
Read more those of the orchestra of Václav Talich, their chief conductor 1919-1931 and 1933-1941, who had established them firmly on the world’s musical map. The pleasurable task of listening to some of their pre-war recordings - still widely available thanks to the Naxos Historical label- confirms that essential musical continuity.
Moreover, in performing this music the orchestra was very much on its own home turf. Musicologists - “who can read music but can’t hear it” - Sir Thomas Beecham - may claim that Fibich was more cosmopolitan in outlook than his more “nationalist” contemporaries Dvorák and Smetana. However, to my ears, at least, the opening movement of this F major symphony is pretty well indistinguishable from something by the New World’s composer in full lyrical flow.
The conductor is the third element in the 1950 account’s success. Karel Sejna (1896-1982) was a stalwart of a national musical life which was much more intense and inward-looking than we are used to today. It may be hard to believe, for example, that in the 1920s there actually was such a thing as a Czechoslovak Railway Workers Symphony Orchestra, but there was - and Sejna was its conductor. Virtually all of his training and career took place in his homeland, a fact reflected in the huge degree of authenticity he brings to his recordings of Czech music.
The 1950s Eastern European technology means, though, that this enjoyable and thoroughly idiomatic account of Fibich’s first symphony understandably shows its age. As well as having been recorded in mono, the overall sound is rather opaque and many of the score’s delightful inner felicities are thereby somewhat obscured. My own copy, in spite of boasting that it has been “24 bit digitally re-mastered”, even boasts a faint but immensely annoying pre-echo on one of its filler tracks: the attractive A springtime tale for soprano, bass, choir and orchestra.
Such sonic deficiencies were certainly not in evidence in January 1993 when Neeme Järvi recorded a new DDD account of the first symphony with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (CHAN 9230, with the second and third symphonies following a year later on. While that was certainly a competent and welcome addition to the rather thin Fibich symphonic discography, it also lacked its Czech predecessor’s sheer character. As a typically cosmopolitan late 20 th century conductor, Järvi inevitably failed to match Sejna’s intuitive grasp of the native Czech musical idiom. Moreover, the playing of the Detroit orchestra, very fine as it was, offers a useful illustration of the erosion of distinctively national orchestral characteristics that occurred as the world became more open in the late 20 th century. While individual players furthering their careers in a worldwide free market no doubt found that to be a positive development, it is undeniable that it also helped create some blandly anonymous orchestras displaying few individual or “national” characteristics. While that may have been, in certain aspects, a good thing - although I, for one, have a soft spot for braying Soviet brass sections (me too. Ed.), in many others the baby has certainly been thrown out with the bathwater.
The orchestra featured on this new Naxos recording, the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, did not even exist until after the fall of the Iron Curtain and is, moreover, often used in recording film scores and other non-classical work. The conductor, Marek Štilec, was only 26 years old when he led this performance. With a 21 st century musical training and background and a personal inclination towards contemporary scores, he might well be expected to have a broader and less “nationalistic” outlook than someone of Sejna’s generation. As a result, I was not expecting much innate empathy with Fibich’s music from either orchestra or conductor.
I could not, however, have been more wrong. Štilec and his band play here with a hugely attractive “rustic” tone that is entirely appropriate to these scores and that entirely escapes Järvi’s Detroit orchestra. In that respect, the cover pictures of the respective discs are very apt: Chandos depict an urban image of Prague’s beautiful Charles Bridge while Naxos has chosen an idealised representation of the Czech countryside. Fibich’s father had been a forester and the young composer had spent much of his childhood in a remote lodge deep in the Czech countryside at Vseborice. In spite of the occasional dramatic flourish that never amounts to much, the symphony’s opening movement is essentially bucolic in character. Within just a few moments, the CNSO’s deliciously fruity woodwinds have transported us magically away into the Bohemian countryside. By the time the memorably lyrical second subject comes along (2:06) I was hooked in a way that Järvi’s account had never managed to achieve in its two decades on my shelves. 

Štilec’s account is altogether lighter and more airy than that of his rivals, fully in keeping with the emphasis he places on the score’s pastoral elements. His is also an appropriately gentler and more relaxed approach, with an overall timing of 36:45 that comfortably exceeds both Järvi’s (34:13) and Sejna’s (30:05). Thankfully the engineering team of Václav Roubal and Karek Soukeník has done a superb job of keeping the sound crystal clear - though my more critical colleague Nick Barnard describes it as having a “clinical glare” - so that all the woodland rustlings and flutterings that Štilec so carefully teases out can be fully appreciated.
The coupling on the Naxos disc, the op.54 Impressions from the countryside, gives Fibich full rein for his romanticism and is in this context an entirely apt one. It is equally well played. It is a shame, though, that, with a total disc time of just 62:18, the opportunity to add another track was missed.
This is apparently the first disc of a series of eight that will include all Fibich’s orchestral scores recorded by the same forces and that will appear over the next few years. I suspect we may well be in for a few musical revelations in that time and certainly look forward to hearing the next instalment from these intriguing and talented new performers.

Rob Maynard

Zdenek Fibich only lived to be fifty, but he was amazingly prolific: three symphonies plus numerous orchestral works, seven operas, the Wagnerian trilogy of melodramas Hippodamia, and countless piano pieces, including a 376 item cycle notorious for describing, among other things, his girlfriend’s body parts. It’s often said that Fibich’s music isn’t Czech-sounding because it’s not reminiscent of Dvorák, but the truth of course is just the other way around: Czech music is Dvorák-sounding, if it is anything at all. The truth is that Fibich was not a melodist on Dvorák’s level–who was?–but his music is as Czech as Czech can be, especially in his handling of the woodwinds and the bright overall sonority. Consider the “Fireside Talk” from Impressions from the Countryside, or the finale of the symphony, a vibrant piece redolent of the outdoors that could have come from nowhere else.

The principal modern competition in this repertoire comes from Neeme Järvi’s complete symphony cycle with the Detroit Symphony on Chandos. Järvi probably has the better orchestra, and although his tempos are marginally quicker he does not sound more energetic than Marek Stilec does here. The reason, as so often with Järvi, stems from his more casual approach to accent and articulation. Stilec invests the music with extra splashes of color and firmer rhythm generally, and this attention to detail grips the attention more firmly. Certainly he has the orchestra playing with enthusiasm, and the sonics, if somewhat studio-bound, are more vivid than Järvi’s relatively recessed perspective. It will be good to have a new cycle of the symphonies, but I suspect that the real value in this series will be the tone poems and other orchestral pieces. Those old Supraphons are beginning to sound their age. Definitely worth following.

-- David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 1 in F major, Op. 17 by Zdenék Fibich
Conductor:  Marek Štilec
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Czech National Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1877-1883; Bohemia 
Impressions from the Country, Op. 54 by Zdenék Fibich
Conductor:  Marek Štilec
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Czech National Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1897-1898; Prague, Czech Republ 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  2 Customer Reviews )
 Little Known Czech No 1 January 6, 2015 By owen  ryan (lakewood, CA) See All My Reviews "Fibich's formative years were lived outside the Czech Republic (primarily in Germany). He returned to Prague at the age of 24 during the rise of Czech nationalism exemplified by the works of Smetana amd Dvorak. Fibich's embrace of Wagner's musical style kept him at the fringe of the Czech musical establishment. When he wrote his First Symphony at the age of 27 his compositional skills were not as polished as they would later become. His ''Impressions'' tone poem was written 20 Years later (2 years before he died) and is a more developed work. The music on this disc is mostly light, melodic and very enjoyable. Definitely worth getting to know." Report Abuse
 An Alternative Czech Voice July 31, 2014 By Henry S. (Springfield, VA) See All My Reviews "Do you like Czech music, but want to experience something other than Dvorak or Smetana? If so, Naxos has a nice alternative in this new release of orchestral music from Zdenek Fibich, a contemporary of both Dvorak and Smetana. Fibich clearly had his own musical worldview, but we still get those qualities which so endear Czech orchestral music to most classical music lovers- smooth, lush melodies originating in Czech national folk music and logical compositional structures to arrange the melodic themes in a totally captivating way. Czech conductor Marek Stilec, only in his mid-20's when this recording was made, leads the Czech National Symphony Orchestra in a polished and attractive performance of Fibich's First Symphony and the thoroughly rustic suite Impressions From the Countryside. Fibich's intent was clearly not to overwhelm the listener with over-the-top bombast; rather, he seemed content to let the basic beauty of his melodic content, formatted in the style of late 19th century Romanticism, carry the message. This is a most attractive program, and I think most will really enjoy it. The only possible criticism I have of this disk is what seemed to me a slightly compressed orchestral sound, which to my ears prevented the full natural ambience of a great symphony orchestra to make itself felt. Nevertheless, this rather tentative comment should in no way discourage anyone from trying this otherwise fine recording." Report Abuse
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