The Brahms’ three violin sonatas are not evenly separated in
his output; there is a nine year gap between the first and second,
but only a year between the second and third. As a group they
illustrate the development of his compositional style.
The first sonata is lyrical in a not quite untroubled way; there
are quotations from two of Brahms’ songs in the finale. One
of these was “Regenlied” (Rain song), op. 59 no. 3, and this
sonata is sometimes known as the “Rain” sonata as a result.
The second sonata is also predominantly lyrical, but traverses
a rich emotional landscape, somewhat like the Second Piano Trio
in C major of 1880. The final sonata is more concise than the
earlier two; the most dramatic and tragic of the set, it is
the only one to have a scherzo: the others having only three
The American violinist Albert Spalding (1888-1953) recorded
these works in 1951 with the Hungarian pianist, conductor and
pianist Erno Dohnányi (1877-1960). Spalding had made many 78rpm
recordings for the Edison company, and went on to record the
Beethoven and Brahms concertos, the Brahms Hungarian dances,
and other repertoire on the Remington label. These were issued
in long playing format, first in a red label series, then in
a black-and-gold label pressed on vinyl. The present recording
is taken from the former series, and is produced by Mark Obert-Thorn.
Spalding and Dohnányi take the first movement of the first sonata
appreciably quicker than other versions: 9:51 versus 11:14 for
Pauk/Vignoles. The approach is warm, with plenty of fantasy
and impulsiveness. The generous tempo fluctuations take us back
to an earlier performance era; Dohnányi does well to keep up
with Spalding, who tends to speed up in the louder passages.
Spalding takes a calmer approach to the second movement, and
the coda is sensitively treated. His intonation is a little
under the note occasionally in this movement. The finale is
a bit patchy rhythmically, with Spalding again tending to rush
the faster passages. There is a beautiful reprise of the second
movement “Rain” theme in the piano. Dohnányi’s accompaniment
is attractively dark-toned, and matches Spalding in impulsivity.
The second sonata finds Dohnányi somewhat more assertive in
the balance; unfortunately the sound in this sonata is a bit
more congested. Spalding varies his dynamic range a bit more
in the first movement. The theme of the second movement could
be played a little more spaciously, but the faster episodes
have a spontaneous feel and the pizzicato is neatly done. Spalding
launches the third movement with a rich and warm tone from his
G string; he is inclined to lighten his bow a little more here
than previously. His intonation is a shade variable again, and
he is not very inclined to recede and let Dohnányi have the
The third sonata displays the steadiest playing; the duo seem
to focus more. It begins in an urgent and agitated fashion.
Spalding has some odd phrasing in this movement, cutting some
notes unexpectedly short. The broad chorale-like theme of the
second movement is played with great warmth and some discreet
portamenti. The emotionally ambiguous third movement again finds
Spalding’s intonation inconsistent, this time in the chords.
The finale opens in dramatic and rhapsodic style; and Dohnányi
blurs his part a little in the heat of the moment. The set,
and this sonata in particular, have the feeling of a live performance,
a sense which is only heightened by the occasional wrong notes.
Competition is pretty fierce with the Brahms violin sonatas,
and there is no shortage of alternative versions. I bought the
Brilliant Classics complete Brahms chamber music set (Brilliant
99800) mainly to get the violin sonatas with György Pauk and
Roger Vignoles. This long established duo gives performances
that, for me, realise Brahms’ full emotional spectrum, from
the pastoral first sonata to the stormy third. Their interplay
has the security and generosity that rest on a thorough mutual
understanding. Pauk and Vignoles are a bit more relaxed than
Spalding/Dohnányi tempo-wise, taking 71:47 for the set as against
67:21. I recently saw this set as a single CD; either in this
form, or as part of the set - which is excellent value - it
would get my vote for a very good mainstream reading.
Spalding’s lapses in intonation, lack of dynamic variety and
rather excitable approach make it hard to recommend this disc
for everyday. As a somewhat quirky complement to a more mainstream
performance, however, it has a lot going for it. The warmth
and spontaneity, and sense of live performance caught on the
wing, are very attractive. Dohnányi’s contribution also has
a great deal of character, and his collaboration with Spalding
captures the playing of an earlier era which perhaps didn’t
make such a fetish of perfection. Mark Obert-Thorn’s transfers
have a natural sound that allows one to concentrate on the music.