A Genius of the Violin – Ida Haendel

Written by: Colin Anderson

We exchange pleasantries. I enquire how Ida Haendel is. “Don’t ask. Life is hectic and turmoil, it’s awful. I’m sorry to say that.” One anticipates that this passionate and humane musician is connecting to circumstances around her. “My own life is very affected by what’s going in the world. I take it to heart. Instead of saving mankind, people are killing each other. For what? For what? If you die it’s all over. You can only achieve something if you go on living and fight for justice.”

Yes, I agree, there is much senseless fanaticism, but there’s also wonderful technology and medicine … “not enough – if you say medical, I don’t see the progress. I’m playing a lot of concerts for cancer research – its one-in-three surviving, with chemotherapy and luck. There’s no real cure.”

I cite to Ida Haendel her emotional and compassionate playing. “I’m trying, I’m trying!” A number of years have passed for Ida Haendel – “let’s not mention it!” – albeit with no let-up (she’d just been in Spain and Canada when we spoke), so what was the violin’s attraction? “It’s simple. My father was an artist-painter whose ambition was to be a violinist. He said that if he ever had a child, he would try and get this child to be a violinist. I have an older sister. She was given the instrument. She played like an average-gifted child. When I was three-and-a-half and I saw children playing with dolls, I said that’s not who I am: I am the violinist here. I took the instrument from the table, which I could barely reach, and I said to my mother, I’m going to play. She told me not to. I said, I’m playing and that’s it. I did not attempt to play; I played. I knew I was a violinist. Maybe the answer is reincarnation.”

This Sunday, 4 April, Ida Haendel visits London to play Max Bruch’s hugely popular G minor Violin Concerto as part of a gala concert to close the Genius of the Violin festival. “It’s a great favourite, a masterpiece.” Hundreds of performances later of this work, of any other repertoire, does Miss Haendel continually re-learn her chosen music? “Yes, and I make changes that will improve it and be closer to the composer.” There’s no shortage of Bruch G minor concertos in London (anywhere probably) – Janine Jansen played it recently in the Royal Festival Hall (24 March; reviewed on this site), and Leila Josefowicz does so at the Barbican two nights prior to Ida Haendel’s St John’s, Smith Square appearance.

I wonder, therefore, if Ida Haendel keeps an eye on the younger generation? “Actually, no. I don’t teach. Occasionally I give masterclasses, under pressure. Inevitably I hear violinists; I drive my car and listen to recent recordings. If there’s somebody I know then I do go to a concert, occasionally.”

Let me give you a date – 1928. This will become significant in a moment.

One of Ida Haendel’s teachers was Carl Flesch. “I met Flesch when I was about 7 in Paris. There was the Wieniawski Competition in Poland (Haendel’s birthplace) and my father wanted Flesch to prepare me. I received the first Polish prize – most of the contestants were older than I was; I was the youngest, I was the baby – and after that we went to London where Flesch resided and taught: for two years just before the war. When the war broke out he escaped because he was afraid the Nazis would invade the United Kingdom. I remained and never saw him again.”

Ida Haendel’s other important mentor was George Enescu. “My father also took me to Paris to meet Enescu, and I met him again after the war when I was in my teens. He was one of the most simple people – this is the greatest art in music: nothing contrived, he followed the score faithfully, as I attempt to do because my greatest respect is not for the performer but the composer, who is the greatest genius because he gets it from the depth of his soul. I call myself a servant of the composer. When I am on the stage I am attempting to share the glory of the composer. If I succeed, I’m in heaven; I’m not there to show off. Individuality will come through.”

Now, if you think that Ida Haendel was born in 1923, as quite a few reference books say, you might be struggling to reconcile the mathematics of the above. I was! One doesn’t like to mention such things – to a lady – but as I’m talking with Miss Haendel my mental addition just isn’t reconciling. And anyway, it takes a few seconds to determine that she is someone to be wholly honest and direct with. Reciprocally, she is nothing less than this. Do I have your year of birth correct, I ask? 1923? “No! Oh my God. 1928. December! Have you ever seen a woman of 80 on the stage? Playing violin? What happened was the following. I was a child, and the agent Harold Holt wanted to present me at Covent Garden as a prodigy, a Sunday afternoon concert, with Thomas Beecham. Then the council said no child under 14 is allowed to appear. My father and Mr Holt made up a story and said I was 14, and that’s what is recorded ever since.” As Ida Haendel says, five years does make a difference!

And while we’re putting the record straight, some music dictionaries say Haendel made her London debut with Henry Wood at the Proms (presumably in Queen’s Hall as it was the mid-’thirties), yet Haendel told me that she had given a recital at that very Hall before the concerto appearance, the latter recorded as being the Brahms. Haendel says she played the Beethoven. Henry Wood’s right though!

To today, and “it never stops. It’s a discovery every day.” As for concerts, “there are so many elements – the atmosphere, the cold, the wind, and physically things happen, your finger can get struck on the string because of humidity, there are so many risks. You have a collaborator (pianist) or a conductor whose beat is slightly different to yours; then the conception is altered. I am at my most comfortable in my bedroom, undisturbed, and this is when I really cry.”

Does Ida Haendel have a daily routine of practising? I have a routine – I don’t practice. I’m not being facetious. When young people ask for advice, I say don’t practice. May I follow this up? You are born with a gift which is only so far and no more. If you think that practise makes perfect, that’s not always true. When you talk about young performers – who can be pretty superficial these days – if you have a girl, it’s about looking good, which helps, because it influences audiences to think they are really remarkable. And the quick movement of arms is an illusion because people who don’t know the score think that by moving the arm so quickly they really play the notes, which is not true.”

We turn to conductors, Ida Haendel mentions the “great” Rafael Kubelik in connection with her 1948 recording of the Bruch G minor concerto, and I remind her of the Brahms she recorded a few years later with Celibidache – “he was a genius. They don’t make them like that anymore. I’m a great admirer of Simon (Rattle); he’s one of the greatest. I don’t want to compare anyone, but he’s probably the greatest English conductor, with all due respect to Malcolm Sargent, Thomas Beecham, Adrian Boult – they were all marvellous – but Simon is an international sought-after celebrity like nobody on this planet.”

And the violin itself – it’s so versatile. Its “human sound and emotional impact” draw Ida Haendel. “I am a dramatic person; I go for the drama. I can also be very funny you know – sometimes people think I’m a stand-up comic, I love jokes – but mostly it’s tragedy and tears, this is what I find in music. I would say the condition of the human being is tragic – birth, the trauma of life, losing people you love, and then your own demise. I just travelled with some chemists and doctors and we talked about medicine, which interests me very much. They said at the age of 25 you reach your peak and then you start dying. This is what I find in music. May I just finish with something positive? I think this festival, Genius of the Violin, which presents the violin in every aspect is a wonderful, wonderful inspiration.”

And may I just finish with recommending Ida Haendel’s wonderful and still-available recordings of the Sibelius, Britten and Walton concertos on EMI, and be equally enthusiastic about the Testament series that Stewart Brown has issued over the years – Bach, Elgar, that Brahms concerto with Celibidache, and other priceless documents. Listening again to her late ’forties recordings of the Bruch No.1 and Beethoven concertos with the “great” Kubelik, I hear a searching honesty that traverses the decades with ease [TESTAMENT SBT 1083]. I ask Ida Haendel if it’s true that she recorded The Lark Ascending for Decca. If so, It’s never been issued. “Yes, with Roger Norrington; it’s so characteristic of Vaughan Williams. Maybe we should ask them to issue it.” OK. Any chance, Decca? Thankfully, Decca still lists Ida Haendel’s 1996 recording of duo-pieces by Bartók, Szymanowski and, meaningfully, Enescu. Her pianist-partner is Vladimir Ashkenazy. On the bonus second CD, Haendel is heard in London recordings made mostly during the Second World War – DECCA 455 488-2 is a handsome collection. The record company links below will furnish you with more details.

Ida Haendel: great lady, great violinist.

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