Johannes BRAHMS (1840-1893)
Violin sonata no. 1 in G major, Op. 78 (1879) [26:31]
Violin sonata no. 2 in A major, Op. 100 (1887) [19:41]
Violin sonata no. 3 in D minor, Op. 108 (1888) [21:09]
Albert Spalding (violin), Erno Dohnányi (piano)
rec. October 1951, New York City. ADD

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 movements.

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 tune.

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.

Guy Aron

These historic recordings of the Brahms violin sonatas are warm and communicative, with a strong sense of spontaneity.