Discovering Zdenêk Fibich

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FIBICH: Symphony No. 3. Šarká: Overture. Bouře [The Tempest]: Overture. Nevĕsta messinská [The Bride of Messina]: Funeral march / Janáček Philharmonic Orch.; Marek Štilec, cond / Naxos 8.574120

The ill-fated Czech composer Zdenêk Fibich, who died at only age 49 in December of 1900, is not nearly as well known as his countrymen Smetana and Dvořák, largely because he consciously avoided writing “Czech nationalist” music as they did. Because of his multi-cultural background, he avoided politicizing his music, and so since the period in which he lived was very high on Nationalism, he was sort of given the cold shoulder.

I did not listen to or review the previous four releases in this series, but to judge from the liner notes his Third Symphony, presented here, is his most interesting and musically evolved composition. I liked it tremendously: the music has those bouncy Czech rhythms, but Fibich did not lay into his themes in the “popular” manner of Dvořák. They are definitely melodic, but do not have tunes that one can hum; rather, they are used as motifs for development, and I appreciated this very much. With that being said, the first movement is indeed a fairly cheerful piece; one could easily fool someone who has never heard this piece before (like me) by playing it without identifying the composer. You’d immediately think Eastern European but maybe not Czech, and if you were told it was by a Czech composer you just might think it was an unknown piece by Dvořák. It’s clearly that well written. There are no “holes” in the music, no moments when you say to yourself, “That’s pompous” or “That’s overwritten.” It all flows along with the themes tied very well into one another.

I did, however, have a complaint about Marek Štilec’s conducting, which struck me as perfunctory. With a bit more pep in his step, Štilec could really have delivered a better reading of this work and make it sound as if he cared about it, which would have been nice. After doing some checking, I discovered an excellent recording of this symphony, paired with Fibich’s Second Symphony, by Neeme Järvi with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra on Chandos, and thus recommend it over this recording.

As for the other pieces on this disc, I was very impressed by the overtures from Šarká and The Tempest, but once again the performances flowed too much and had too little bite.

Bottom line review: good music, but lackluster conducting.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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