Morgen: Strauss & Dvořák

Mischa Maisky; Pavel Gililov (DG 477 7465)

24 February 2009 3.5 stars

MorgenIt's strange to have a CD ostensibly offering a tribute to the great Czech cellist, Hanuš Wihan, that is not only named after a song with a famous violin solo but includes several pieces by Dvořák that are originally for violin.

It's a reflection of Mischa Maisky's performances, though, that he largely manages to make these Dvořák works, the Sonatina in G major op.100 and the Romantic Piece Op.75 No.4, his own, rendering them highly persuasive in their new guise.

While the mature Dvořák composed some of his best-loved works for Wihan – including the concerto and the cello part of the 'Dumky' Trio – Richard Strauss's dealings with him came far earlier in that composer's career. Wihan was a member of the Munich Court Orchestra and a friend of Strauss's father, and it was he who premiered in 1883 the early F major Sonata Op.6; Strauss wrote the Romance AV75 for him in the same year. An extra piquancy derives from a closeness that developed between Strauss and Wihan's wife, Dora, which set tongues waggling in Munich until the young composer was summoned in 1885 by Hans von Bülow to be his assistant at Meiningen.

There's no hiding the fact that these are early works by a composer still very much in thrall of his models. The booklet essay identifies mainly Mendelssohn – particularly in the skipping rhythms and jaunty counterpoint in the outer movements – and a touch of Brahms, but there also seems to be a hint of Schumann in there. However despite, or maybe because of, some rather eccentric twists and turns the sonata is highly enjoyable on its own terms. Maisky and his pianist Pavel Gililov are ideally alert in the opening Allegro con brio and expressive in the rather beautiful central Andante ma non troppo, capturing the main melody's return half way through with hushed simplicity. The finale starts more like a scherzo and despite a few passionate outbursts – some dashed with some hints of Straussian heroics to come – maintains a feeling of playful levity throughout, captured with evident joy by Maisky and Gililov. The better-known Romance was originally written with an orchestral accompaniment but gains from the intimacy afforded in its duo arrangement, receiving a beautifully turned performance, here, that is tender and passionate by turns.

By contrast to Strauss's youthful works, the Dvořák pieces show a the intimate touch of a fully-fledged master in relaxed vein. Written for his son and daughter the end of the composer's stay in America, the Sonatina has the easy-going melodic charm, spiced up with folk-like elements, that informs many of his greatest chamber works. And Maisky goes a long way to allay fears of the music's unsuitability for cello: the instrument brings an extra melancholy to the beautiful Larghetto and allows for a greater degree of foot-stomping folksiness in the Scherzo and finale. I personally found it more difficult to hear the Romantic Piece on cello – for example the double-stopped passages which seem especially designed for the violin – but Maisky brings some wonderful hushed lyricism to a performance that is still highly seductive. No such doubts, however, about the charming Rondo in G minor, Op.94, this time actually written for Wihan, dispatched with masterly characterisation and control.

I was far less sure about the arrangement of Strauss's 'Morgen' which both closes the disc and gives it its name. Here the cello takes the famous violin solo of the song, with Gililov appropriating the vocal line. It's a skilful arrangement, very beautifully played, but for the first time on the disc I really missed the violin's higher tessitura, not to mention a voice intoning Mackay's evocative verse.

This disc might be based on a slightly confused concept, but Maisky is an artist who brings the same virtuosity and intensity of expression to everything he does, here also displaying a meltingly beautifully pianissimo on several occasions. The early Strauss is highly enjoyable, the Dvořák masterly and with fine playing and top-drawer recorded sound, it's a disc which can be recommended easily.

By Hugo Shirley

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StraussRelated articles:

CD Review: Maltman and Miles on Vol. 4 of Hyperion's Strauss Song series
Concert Review: Mischa and Lily Maisky at the Edinburgh Festival (August '08)
CD Review: The Florestan Trio play Antonín Dvorák Opp. 21 and 26 (Hyperion)