I’ve had occasion, fortunately, to write about the violinist
Albert Spalding (1888-1953), a musician I much admire (review
His Remington LP of the Brahms sonatas was recorded in 1951,
two years before his death. Whilst it’s by no means rare, it
– like so many Remingtons – has a certain cachet, despite the
poky recording quality and pressing, making it pricey to buy
on the second-hand market.
So, good news; here is an all-sonata disc, culled from two Remingtons;
P-199-84 and R-199-49. In addition to listening to Spalding
we have the added advantage of the pianist, none other than
Ernst von (Ernö) Dohnányi. Mark Obert-Thorn’s restorations are
fortunately excellent, mitigating the limitations of the originals.
Spalding was a great classicist, and less prone to romanticised
expression. That said, he could be a highly effective performer
of the repertoire. I like his Brahms Hungarian Dances set –
which I did manage to get on a 10” LP - for its sheer vitality,
and he recorded the same composer’s Concerto, in Vienna - somewhat
patchily, it must be admitted.
The recording quality for the Brahms sonatas is dry, the performances
patrician, aristocratic, and gently aloof. This is not effusive
Brahms playing but nor is it too cool either. The most contentious
performance is that of Op.108, where Spalding’s phrasing takes
on a rather prissy quality I’ve seldom encountered from him.
This, allied to his very fast vibrato with its uneven intensity,
vests the music with a decidedly uneasy quality. Both men take
time to settle here, and they are relaxed in the scherzo, withdrawn
in the slow movement. Spalding’s portamenti are subtle and discreet,
but by this stage in his life, there is not overmuch width to
the tone, and its variation is within a relatively tight compass.
He and Dohnányi take a fine, flexible tempo for the first movement
of Op.78. Again Spalding’s fast vibrato limits colouration,
but his rubati are admirable; Dohnányi’s too. The phrasal assurance
of the slow movement is notable, though many will perhaps find
the response muted and a touch off-hand. I happen to like it,
whilst appreciating a contrary point of view. Spalding is at
his most ‘feminine’ sounding in the Andante tranquillo
of Op.100. Insignificant pianistic fluffs in the finale are
subordinate to the feeling that the rapid fluctuation of Spalding’s
vibrato has led, once more, to a lack of tonal breadth.
I don’t normally go on much about smaller booklet details if
I find them irrelevant or ignorable, but I must protest at Mark
Obert-Thorn’s biographical note about Spalding. He calls him
‘America’s greatest native-born violinist’, which is actually
a line long ago peddled about Spalding. Let’s be clear; it means
he wasn’t a Jew. If it ever had any validity, and compiling
league tables of musicians is a pernicious and useless occupation,
then it has absolutely none now. Wasn’t Menuhin born in New
York? This is all the more unfortunate as Spalding was a brave
man – he put his career on hold in both World Wars – and the
kind of man who would doubtless have despaired over the slur
inherent in that miserable appellation, one that has been perpetuated
See also review by Guy
In reproducing the description of Spalding
as being "America's greatest native-born violinist"
original Remington LP notes, it was not my intention to slight
Menuhin or make any anti-Semitic comment
in the least. Indeed, I am embarrassed to say that Menuhin had
entirely slipped my mind when I quoted
that description. I had only wished to assert Spalding's standing
during the peak years of his career to
modern readers who might not be familiar with his reputation.