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Zdenek Fibich: Symphonies 1 and 2

Razumovsky Orchestra/Andrew Mogrelia

CD Review

<< Continued from yesterday

This new CD of his first two symphonies offers us something to start from; and the first two minutes of the first symphony encourage us to believe that Fibich's native gifts were brilliant indeed. The lilting, upward-floating initial phrase on limpid flutes is magical, both in inspiration and in technical know-how. Yet the first movement of this work written over a span in six years, between the ages of 27 and 33, fails to hold the attention, as do the (however relaxed) symphonies of Dvorák; let alone to grip one by the throat as does the extraordinarily trenchant Sinfonietta of Janácek - a truly heroic work, despite its diminutive title. Fibich ambulates amiably through Bohemia's Wood and Fields, following in Smetana's footsteps, and we enjoy with him Nature's bosky banks and billowy breezes. Yet, Fibich, unlike Dvorák, is not content to savour such delights as they pass his way; the very virtuosity of his technique encourages him to expatiate unnecessarily, and to round things off with codas progressively more otiose. The climax to this inflation comes in the vigorous finale, the final huzzas of which are on the brink of risibility. The Mendelssonic fairy-music of the scherzo, with its Bohemianly bucolic trio, is more digestible, as is the romantically melancholic, ballad-like adagio. On the whole, however, the symphony comes out as effete after Janacek's irresistible immediacy, and finnicky after Dvorák's committed spontaneity. Incidentally, both Fibich and Dvorák were staunch Roman Catholics, whereas Smetana and Janácek were (sometimes aggressive) agnostics.

Over his relatively short life Fibich experienced his share of life's vicissitudes. His youthful fame as a prodigy was tempered by the early death of his first wife and of their two children. On the rebound he married his wife's sister and sired another son: only to leave them both for an 18-year-old pupil with whom he'd fallen perhaps too romantically in love. Fibich's Second Symphony was composed 1892-3 under the thrall of his passion: though there's not much evidence of this in the first movement, unless one counts as such the initial, beautifully scored forest-noises, penetrated by rhythms of martial virility! The spacious development sounds more German than Bohemian, though it doesn't achieve the tough Brahmsian economy it emulates. The slow movement, which incorporates material from a set of piano pieces Fibich composed for his young love, offers a dichotomy between heart-felt love-music, with almost Mahlerian appoggiaturas, and an oddly syncopated march - perhaps a fairy-tale in the German sense. If this casts doubt on the total validity of Fibich's love-affair, it's significant that he offers the fairy-tale tune the last gentle word. In fact, the affair was ended by Fibich's premature death, and the still-young girl died soon after.

Comparing Fibich with Janácek, especially in the latter's quasi-autobiographical works like The Diary of a Man who Vanished, one has to admit that the distinction is simply that between genius, which confronts life-as-it-is, even if it's nasty, brutish, and short, and talent which, using art as a buffer to life, thereby denies its nature. Even so, Fibich's talents were greater than most of us can boast of, and people who relish late romantic symphonies should derive much pleasure from this disc, on which the presumably 'local' Razumovsky Orchestra play well, more than competently directed by Andrew Mogrelia. So they should, for the music is as 'grateful' to play as it is 'easy' to listen to.

Copyright © Wilfrid Mellers, April 11th 1999


Naxos 8.553699
Razumovsky Orchestra/Andrew Mogrelia

Zdenek Fibich: Symphonies 1 and 2

DDD                                  Playing time: 71m



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