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Fire and Ice: Ida Haendel (1928-2020)

Luis Dias

More than 20 years ago, on Friday, June 23, 2000, I went to a recital at London’s Wigmore Hall. By then, I had been in the city for two years, and had explored most of its classical music venues. But a visit to Wigmore Hall (“the sacred shoe-box of chamber music”, Vikram Seth poetically calls it in his brilliant novel ‘An Equal Music’) is always a special occasion.

It’s a long time ago, but I’m guessing I decided to go for two reasons: the great Polish-born violinist Ida Haendel would be playing that evening. I had only heard her (and of her) through the suitcases of audio cassettes that George Trautwein had left behind for me upon his return to the US after a long stint in Goa in 1989. And the other reason was that she would be playing the Brahms Third Violin Sonata in D minor. I certainly remember that sonata, and that she also played another ‘third’ sonata, this one by George Enescu, a tribute to her own childhood teacher, and that, even in her seventies, she still “had it”. That was the one and only time I heard Ida Haendel in a live concert.

She passed away on June 30, 2020, aged 92. Tributes immediately poured in from classical music media everywhere. The Guardian’s music correspondent Robert White praised her “combination of classical rigour and romantic warmth—ice and fire”, her “perfectly judged use of the expressive slide, the portamento,” (one of the hallmarks of great playing from an earlier generation, and woefully out of fashion among string players today) which contributed to “a highly characteristic sound that combined great accuracy with intense lyricism.”

A true child prodigy, she picked up her sister’s violin at age three, and incredibly, in 1933, (when she would have been just five!) she performed the Beethoven violin concerto, winning the Warsaw Conservatory’s Gold Medal and the Huberman Prize. In 1935, age seven, she competed alongside the great virtuosos David Oistrakh and Ginette Neveu to become a laureate of the first Henryk Wieniawski Violin Competition. At nine, she made her London debut at the Queen’s Hall with Sir Henry Wood conducting.

Her pedagogical lineage was impressive. Prior to studying with George Enescu in Paris, she was also the pupil of Carl Flesch in London.

The composer Jean Sibelius was so impressed by Haendel’s rendition of his Violin Concerto in a 1948 Finnish radio broadcast that he exclaimed to her in a fan letter: “You played it masterfully in every respect … I congratulate myself that my concerto has found an interpreter of your rare standard.”The Sibelius Society awarded her the Sibelius Medal in 1982.

Sifting through the flurry of tribute articles and obituaries on the internet after her death, I came across an old article which happened to be written just a day before her 2000 Wigmore Hall. It was written by British commentator on music and cultural affairs, novelist, and the author of the classical music gossip blog Slipped Disc, Norman Lebrecht, and the article had the intriguing title: ‘Ida Haendel – The one they don’t want you to hear’.

I was surprised to learn from him that the concert I had attended was in fact her Wigmore Hall debut. He ascribed the woeful shunning of this extraordinary icon by the classical music world to sexism, to the insistence on “ female soloists (only females) being wrinkle-free” while “pensionable male soloists with trembling hands still strut the circuit,” and the preference for “bare shoulders over bold interpretation”.

Having read how enthusiastically the composer himself endorsed Haendel’s interpretation of his concerto, it was painful to read that, in 1998, she was invited to participate in the London Symphony Orchestra’s Sibelius festival, only to be told she wouldn’t be playing the concerto (“that she has owned for half a century”, says Lebrecht); that honour would be given to Anne-Sophie Mutter, while Haendel’s role would be much more modest. Understandably, she bowed out of the vent. “The loss was ours”, rues Lebrecht.

The irony is that Mutter herself, along with so many other present-generation violinists from Maxim Vengerov to David Garrett, regarded her with awe. Lebrecht reminded us back then in 2000, of the further irony that Mutter herself would in time be pushed to the margins in “a man’s world”, while male soloists would be treated much less harshly.

On account of such attitudes, Lebrecht felt in 2000, Haendel had “failed to acquire the Augustan eminence of a Menuhin, the serenity of a Stern. Ida Haendel is angry, and an angry old woman is more than the twittery music business can bear.”

A decade later, in 2010, in the documentary ‘I Am The Violin’, Haendel expressed her anger and frustration at being passed over in favour of the “new, young”, and not necessarily always with ability. And yet, she was mentor, to among others, the then-young Chloe Hanslip. Obviously the fact that she was also a child prodigy struck a close bond.

“Bach is the root of everything,” she told Hanslip in a 2002 joint interview to The Telegraph. In a Masterclass session to The Strad on the Bach Chaconne in D minor a year ago, she said: “There are some works where you are free to do whatever you want, to be absolutely personal with taste – Rave and Sarasate for example – but Bach is pure. The only way to interpret it is to be as close to the composer and his intentions
as possible.”

She wasn’t impressed with those who treated Bach as a “virtuoso exercise”, to “show off their advanced violin playing”.

“What’s the most difficult part of being a ballerina? The slow tempo, the adagio, not the fast dancing, not running around the stage. It’s the same with violin playing. To play fast, it’s over before you know it and nobody can even pinpoint what’s wrong when it goes so quickly. The real problem for violinists is control of the adagio.”

Even more profound was her advice on self-criticism: “The greatest art of music-making is being capable of listening to yourself in a critical way so that you can distinguish what you are doing in regard to phrasing, vibrato and technique in every bar. You have to listen to yourself as if from a distance, as you would listen to someone else playing. To be self-critical is one of the greatest arts.”

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