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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers


Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Romance in G major, Op.40 [6:41]
Romance in F major, Op.50 [8:11]
Violin Sonata No.9 in A major, Op.47 Kreutzer [30:47]
Violin Sonata No.10 in G major, Op.96 [25:24]
Albert Spalding (violin); André Benoist (piano) (Op. 40 & 50); Jules Wolffers (piano) (Op. 47); Ernö Dohnányi (piano) (Op. 96)
rec. 1935, RCA Studio No. 2 NYC (Op. 40 & 50); May 1952, Boston University (Op. 47) January 1953, Florida State University, Tallahassee (Op. 96)

In his heyday Albert Spalding was billed as ‘The Greatest American Violinist’. He was born in Chicago in 1888, son of an affluent business man in sporting goods. His musical gifts probably came from his mother who was both a pianist and contralto. He studied in Florence, where his family spent the winter months, and in America in the summers. At fourteen he graduated at the Bologna Conservatory. He later spent two years studying in Paris with Augustin Lefort, and made his debut there in 1905. He spent World War I in service, then embarked on a solo career. He also enlisted for service in World War II. Around 1950 he retired from concert performance, but gave masterclasses. He was the composer of two violin concertos and a string quartet, as well as writing an autobiography.

Spalding’s recording career began in the acoustic era, with Edisons and Brunswicks. Between 1934 and 1941 he recorded a large number of works for Victor, including the two Romances included here, which were set down in March and April of 1935. After he retired he made some LPs for Remington. He also recorded some recitals at Boston University in the fifties, from which this airing of the ‘Kreutzer’ is taken. The performance has had a previous outing on an Allegro LP (1675), coupled with the Bach Chaconne, now a collector’s item. The G major Sonata, Op. 96 was recorded at Florida State University with Ernö Dohnányi , just four months before the violinist’s death. This is a first release, and makes a welcome addition to the Spalding discography.

Most won’t be familiar with the two Romances accompanied on the piano rather than by orchestra. The pianist is André Benoist, who was Spalding’s regular partner in the thirties. As well as recording together an array of smaller pieces, their more substantial efforts include distinguished readings of Handel’s E major Sonata, and the Brahms Op. 100 (Green Door GDCS-008). Benoit achieves a satisfactory approximation of orchestral backing in the Romances. Spalding is on top form and the weaknesses in his playing, which are evident in his later recordings, have not yet taken hold. His tone is pure, sweet and virile. His rapid, unvaried vibrato does limit his tonal palette to some extent. In the Op. 50 in F major, some anachronistic upward and downward portamenti do stand out, which will sound rather outdated to today’s listeners. His playing is never prone to excess, but always remains contained. He shunned the more ‘virtuosic’ style of some of his colleagues, in favour of a more refined approach to music.

The pianist in the ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata is Jules Wolffers, who was a professor of music at Boston University at the time of the recording. The sound, considering the recording’s date and provenance, is acceptable. The presence of an audience is confirmed by the odd bronchial interjection. Balance between the two instruments is ideal, and Woolfers proves a sympathetic collaborator. There is no doubting that by 1952, two years after his retirement, Spalding’s sound has lost something of its tonal lustre and sheen. His intonation isn’t always centre-of-the-mark either. Nevertheless, it is a compelling performance with drama and energy in the opening movement. In the Andante con variation, Woolfers introduction is a little dry and staid, but things improve as the movement progresses. The finale is crisply articulated by Spalding, and the work ends with gusto and verve.

The Op. 96, from a 1953 recital given at Florida State University, the venue of Spalding’s winter masterclasses, is partnered by Ernö Dohnányi, no less. The illustrious duo recorded the three Brahms Violin Sonatas in 1951, also issued by Pristine Audio (PACM078). The performance is inspired from beginning to end. There’s some fervent playing of offer, especially in the beautiful slow movement. The players capture the joy, hope and pastoral qualities of the music to perfection. The audience respond with some hearty applause.

Mark Obert-Thorn has done a sterling job with the audio restorations, especially in the two live sonata performances. I, for one, have been bewitched by Spalding’s charming and elegant playing.

Stephen Greenbank

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

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