Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Romance in G major, Op.40 (c. 1802) [6:41]
Romance in F major, Op.50 (c.1798) [8:11]
Violin Sonata No.9 in A major, Op.47 Kreutzer (1803) [30:47]
Violin Sonata No.10 in G major, Op.96 (1812) [25:24]
Albert Spalding (violin)
André Benoist (piano: Romances)
Jules Wolffers (piano: Sonata No.9)
Ernö Dohnányi (piano: Sonata No.10)
rec. 1935, RCA Studio No. 2 NYC (Romances); May 1952, Boston University (Sonata No.9); January 1953, Florida State University, Tallahassee (Sonata No.10)

I’ve long admired the elegant art of Albert Spalding and one of the most enjoyable features of the last few years has been the restoration of rare LP and live material from the vaults. In this respect Pristine Audio has been on something of a mission, leading the field, and they continue the reclamation here with two major Beethoven sonatas, recorded in the early 1950s, and the two Romances from 78s made in the 1930s. The programme thus has a balanced and convincing look about it.

Both Romances were recorded in May 1935, though the issued third take of one side of the Romance in G major required an April session. This is the one that has never been reissued in any form, unlike its companion in F major. Spalding’s long-time accompanist and friend André Benoist lends his support. The G major is buoyant and attractively shaped. In the F major one can appreciate Spalding’s pellucid playing, and that fast vibrato that vests the performance with a crystalline purity. These are conspicuously successful transfers.

The Kreutzer was recorded in May 1952 at Boston University and was first released on Allegro 1675. Collectors will know that Spalding’s LPs go for pretty high prices so their appearance on CD is very much to be welcomed. Jules Wolffers is the pianist. Spalding had retired in 1950 but continued to give master classes in Boston and also in Florida, so this live concert performance should be heard in that context. The recorded sound is intractable in respect of the balance, and the piano sounds more centred in the perspective than the violin, which has some spread to its sound. Spalding’s vibrato speed had slackened since the 1930s and lost some of its lustre and tonal variety. And it’s true that he is not centre-of-the-note at all times. This is most marked in the finale where his intonation and articulation come under real strain, but one senses that he was tiring, as he had every reason to do. What remains is the outline of a fine performance, and some particularly exciting details, such as the way Spalding and Wolffers drive decisively through the faster variations in the central movement.

The companion Op.96 sonata is a really interesting performance, coming from a concert given by Spalding and Dohnányi at Florida State University just four months before the violinist’s death. There are certainly imperfections. The piano is over-recorded relative to the violin, which is helpful if you want to hear its counter-themes but less so if you want a perfect balance. But the approximations of a live set-up and the relative technical frailties of both performers are worth preserving with, as this is a unique document. Spalding has lost more body of tone since the Kreutzer the year before, and some slips by Dohnányi show he too was susceptible to the inevitable incursions of time. But whilst ensemble is somewhat rough and ready there are still many things to admire, not least the pianist’s animating left hand articulation in the finale and Spalding’s sympathetic phrasing in the slow movement. If one doesn’t expect the intensity of, say, Szigeti and Arrau’s almost contemporaneous live performance (on Vanguard), one can listen to this Spalding-Dohnányi performance, admitting all faults and weaknesses, but acknowledging just what it is they are trying to do. It was, after all, never intended for publication.

Acknowledging the specialist nature of this release, I welcome it strongly for the light it sheds on these musicians’ sympathetic collaboration. Even more from this source would be very welcome.

Jonathan Woolf