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
PRISTINE AUDIO PACM 078 [67:21]

I’ve had occasion, fortunately, to write about the violinist Albert Spalding (1888-1953), a musician I much admire (review 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 Both men take time to settle here, and they are relaxed in the scherzo, withdrawn in the slow movement.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 here.

Jonathan Woolf

Patrician, aristocratic, and gently aloof.