Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Fibich Symphony No. 3 Marek Štilec

Zdenék Fibich (1850–1900)
Symphony No. 3
Šárka: Overture
The Tempest, op. 40: Act III Overture
The Bride of Messina: Act III Funeral Music
Marek Štilec, conductor
Janáček Philharmonic Ostrava
Naxos 8.574120 (63:21)

Zdenék Fibich (1850–1900) is one of those many Czech composers who you are well-represented on disc, but who are only ever performed live in their homeland. Even there, Fibich has a checkered reputation. He was active in the 1880s and 90s, a time of high nationalism in Czech lands. But Fibich himself was ambivalent, and happy to follow German models, especially Wagner. That attitude is demonstrated by one of his most famous operas, The Bride of Messina (we get an excerpt here), which was based on a play by Schiller—German-language sources a big no no in Czech opera at the time. But it is easy to exaggerate the composer’s dissidence. The Bride of Messina, for example, won a competition which resulted in it being premiered at the National Theater in Prague in 1884. And listening to the music on this disc, it is obvious that the composer is Czech, even if some of the more adventurous harmonic shifts and sophisticated orchestral textures sound Germanic. In fact, there is often a tension between that cosmopolitan sophistication and the folk-like melodic style, similar to Smetana, though less memorable. There is also a grandiose side to Fibich, which becomes clear when he introduces menacing motifs in the lower brass, as he does in the first movement of the symphony and in the Messina music. The effect is somewhere between Weber and Wagner, although shorter of breath than either.
The Third Symphony was composed in 1898, shortly before the composer’s death at the age of 50. The liner note, by Richard Whitehouse, suggests that the first two symphonies are more Classical in structure, while the Third follows a “darkness to light” trajectory, more associated with the 19th century. If he is implying that this is the most Beethovenian of Fibich’s symphonies, it is notable how much less so it seems than the mature symphonies of Dvořák. In fact, it is difficult to link this music with any direct influence, “the highpoint of his maturity,” as Whitehouse writes. The outer movements are impressively dramatic, and in a clearly operatic vein. The second movement, nominally slow but marked Allegro con fuoco, is schmaltzy but tuneful, and the scherzo has an ideal balance of bite and bounce.
This release is the fifth and final in a series of Fibich orchestral music from Naxos, the first four with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, but this one with the Janáček Philharmonic Ostrava, all conducted by Marek Štilec. The orchestra sounds Czech, with rich woodwinds and obstreperous brass. But the string sound lacks character, and the ensemble loses focus in the tuttis. As I mentioned, Fibich is surprisingly well-represented on disc, and this version of the Third Symphony is up against three others, all recorded in the 1990s: Bělohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic (Supraphon, rereleased in 2018 as 4250), Gerd Albrecht also with the Czech Philharmonic (Orfeo 350951, rereleased 2019 in the box set 1802), and Neeme Järvi with the Detroit Symphony (Chandos 9682). Only the Gerd Albrecht is available to me for comparison, but the most obvious contrast is the superior playing of the Czech Philharmonic, which gives a greater sophistication to this music, but without loosing its ethnic roots. A review of the Albrecht by James H. North (Fanfare 19:3) compares it with the Järvi and finds Albrecht’s tempos considerably slower. That is little surprise, given Neeme Järvi’s propulsive tendencies, but Štilec is slower again, and not always to his advantage. The first movement gains weight for the slower tempo, although it sounds ponderous in comparison with Albrecht’s sleeker textures (and cleaner ensemble). The second-movement conundrum is taken in different directions by the two conductors: Štilec treats it like the slow movement that it clearly is and ignores the Allegro con fuoco marking, with Albrecht starts at a tempo that reflects the direction—at least twice as fast as here—before settling into the more relaxed music to follow. Clearly, there are many different ways to present this music, and while I prefer Štilec’s approach to tempo, Albrecht wins overall for orchestral performance—with the additional proviso that North also praised the orchestral playing from the Detroit Symphony.
The fillers are orchestral excerpts from three of Fibich’s operas. All demonstrate that grandiose tendency heard in the first movement of the symphony, though it is only an echo in the Funeral March from The Bride of Messina, and the act III Overture from The Tempest is more dreamy woodwind than heavy brass. Confusingly, Fibich wrote two unrelated works with the title The Tempest, an opera (op. 40) and a tone poem (op. 46). This overture comes from the opera, but the tone poem is one of the fillers on the Albrecht Third Symphony recording.
One possible unique selling point for this series is that the conductor has done a great deal of research into sources to recreate the scores as Fibich knew them. Apparently many edits and cuts had crept in over the years within the performing tradition—further evidence, if you are still skeptical, that there is a performing tradition for this music. Štilec includes repeats that had previously fallen from favor. So it is to his credit that the music never sounds repetitious. Otherwise, this is another worthy addition to Naxos’s ever-adventurous catalog, the interpretations compelling, but the orchestral playing challenged by the competition.

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