Fibich: String Quartet No. 1; String Quartet No. 2; Theme and variations in B flat

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LABELS: Supraphon
WORKS: String Quartet No. 1; String Quartet No. 2; Theme and variations in B flat
PERFORMER: Panocha Quartet
For Czech musicians and cultural historians the name Zdenek Fibich is heavy with significance. He was ‘the first Czech Romantic composer’, a pioneer in the field of national opera who also produced some more than respectable orchestral music. But it’s hard to imagine even the most blinkered nationalist making fervent claims for the string quartets. It’s not that the music is bad or (worse) dull. There’s plenty of melodic charm in the two main works on this disc, and an attractive imagination flickers intermittently. The Panocha Quartet makes the most of these qualities, and the players manage very effectively to breathe life into Fibich’s often four-square phrasing so that it never becomes merely ponderous. Playing in the Theme and Variations radiates affection, and the recording has warmth to match (plus reasonable clarity). And yet you can tell that Fibich isn’t a natural quartet-writer. Too often this sounds like music for string orchestra boiled down for four instruments – admittedly you could say the same about some of Tchaikovsky’s quartet-writing (or even Dvorák’s), but in those works there are plenty of compensatory qualities. Played alongside Tchaikovsky’s First Quartet, or Dvorák’s G major, this will sound pretty thin. Stephen Johnson