ZDENĚK FIBICH – String Quartet No. 1 ­

Czech Romantic composer Zdeněk Fibich [1850-1900] wrote two string quartets. I am going to discuss the First, which is in four movements.

An allegro movement opens the work, with lyrical, floating melodies being the focus. The tempo is gentle as the violins duet around a charming melodic motif. I hear a hint of the Classical here, possibly Mozart. A charming harmonic background supports the violins as they continue with their melodic development in a stately manner. A recurring theme sounds familiar, but I can’t quite place it. A change in mood is sparse, although the violins are still sweet, while the cello and viola adopt a Classical-style approach to the harmony. Nearing the end, there is a brief dramatic interlude, with pulsing violins but this soon returns to the predominant feeling of the movement. A melancholy moment ensues before the violins contribute a final flourish.

The next, andante movement features a lush chordal background as the violins weave delicate melodies, freed from a tempo. There are some slightly virtuosic violin phrases which introduce a moment of dynamic intensity – this is answered by a sparse ensemble, which makes for an interesting, contrasting passage. The violins carry the music forward with ever-evolving melodies, supported by gentle ensemble pulses. Now the violins move up a register and their wistful playing evokes a feeling of great peace. A solo cello phrase leads to an attractive ending.

The third movement is march-like, as the violins again lead the ensemble, this time in a structured manner. Pizzicato can be heard in the background and the violins become rhythmically active, with assured phrasing. A new mood increases the intensity for a time, but this soon returns to the previous lighter feeling. The end is very controlled, and is a variation on an earlier theme.

The finale is in a brisk tempo, with a highly charged violin passage. There is some melodic development before the mood changes into a slow, stately section with strong violin phrases, which are often echoed by the cello. What follows is a combination of the two previous moods, with the hectic violin punctuated by slower ensemble responses. Eventually, just when you think the tempo has won out, the stately feeling returns. All instruments have a strong role to play here. Another powerful passage emerges, this time the cello is the frantic voice. A fine series of harmonised melodies leads to an almost surprising conclusion.

The review CD, Fibich: String Quartet, performed by the Kocian Quartet contains quartets Nos. 1 and 2, together with a 12-minute piece of variations for string quartet. This disc is available on Amazon US, UK and Presto Classical. There are several other versions of the First Quartet, one of which has it paired with the two quartets of Smetana.

Some of these versions, including the Kocian, can be found on Spotify and there are several quartets on YouTube. The three pieces on the review CD are also on earsense, this time performed by the Panocha Quartet.

Listenability: An appealing Romantic work.


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