By Sasha Margolis
The death of Ginette Neveu was one of the great tragedies in violin history. The French violinist was 30, and a still-rising star, when the Air France flight on which she was traveling crashed into a mountain in the Azores archipelago. Upon her death, the music world responded with grief-stricken testimonials. Conductor Charles Münch apostrophized: “…each time that by the grace of God we are able to make music really well, we shall feel you very close to us.” Conductor Eugene Ormandy called her the “greatest woman violinist—and I’ll go so far as to say, one of the greatest interpreters on the violin of our time.” To Pablo Casals, “Her playing was one of the greatest revelations, both instrumental and musical. To the impression of perfection, balance, and artistic taste, she added in her interpretation, fire, and abandon which filled her playing with richness.”
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Neveu showed her greatness early. Born in Paris in 1919, she studied first with her violinist mother, and by seven had performed both the Bruch and Mendelssohn concerti. Following further lessons with George Enescu, she entered the Paris Conservatoire, where after studying violin with Jules Boucherit and composition with Nadia Boulanger, she earned a premier prix at age eleven. Next, she was recruited by Carl Flesch, who wished to teach her for free, declaring, “My child, you have received a gift from heaven, and I have no wish to touch it. All I can do for you is to give you some purely technical advice.” She worked with him for four years.
In 1935, Neveu traveled to Warsaw for the inaugural Wieniawski Competition. There, something incredible happened. The fifteen-year-old Neveu, wowing the audience especially with her rendition of Ravel’s Tzigane, beat out the twenty-six-year-old David Oistrakh, along with a host of other worthy competitors including Henri Temianka, Boris Goldstein, Bronislav Gimpel, and a very young Ida Haendel, for first place. Tours of Europe, the Soviet Union, and America immediately followed.
Neveu’s nascent career was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II, during which she remained in Paris, unable to concertize widely. She did have the chance to request a sonata from Francis Poulenc, who would later relate: “To be honest, I don’t like the violin, as a solo instrument… but how could I resist a suggestion from Ginette Neveu!… The war had deprived us of Menuhin, Heifetz, and Francescatti, but we had the unexpected fortune to have their equal on our doorstep… There are some tasty details in the violin part, entirely due to Ginette Neveu who was a great help over the instrumental writing…” The two premiered the sonata in June 1943.
After the war, Neveu resumed touring, joined by her pianist brother Jean. Following a 1947 Carnegie Hall recital, composer-critic Virgil Thomson called her the “finest, from every point of view, of the younger European artists… she is an interesting artist because she has rhythm and a special intensity all her own.” She revisited America in January 1949, and was scheduled to fly to New York again in late October. On the 27th, she and Jean arrived at Orly Airport, ready to board the Lockheed Constellation airplane known as the “Airplane of the Stars.” In the departure lounge, they met fellow passenger Marcel Cerdan, the North African boxer known as the Casablanca Clouter, then in a relationship with chanteuse Edith Piaf. A French tabloid photographer was there, too, and in a high-spirited photo shoot, Cerdan posed holding Ginette’s Strad. Things took a less happy turn at two the following morning, when the plane, attempting to land for refueling in the Azores, crashed, killing all forty-eight aboard. Ginette’s Strad and Guadagnini were also destroyed. The crash, and the lives of the passengers, are imagined in Adrien Bosc’s award-winning 2014 novel, Constellation.
By all accounts, Neveu was an extraordinarily charismatic performer. Possessed of incredible interpretive conviction, she could make long stretches of music feel like one unending phrase, and produced a tone of great depth, colored with a distinctive vibrato which, in her recordings, is especially present in smaller-scale repertoire. She was also a sensitive and creative colorist, and used slides to great effect for changes of color and momentum. She left behind too few recordings. Perhaps the greatest are a Brahms Concerto, fiery in its opening and forceful in its finale, and a profoundly eloquent Chausson Poème, both played with Dobrowen and the Philharmonia Orchestra. Also with the Philharmonia, under Susskind, Neveu recorded the Sibelius. The composer wrote: “I particularly wish to speak of my feeling of profound gratitude when I think of the inspired and extremely sensitive performance of my Violin Concerto which Ginette Neveu rendered unforgettable.”
Before the war, as a teenager, Neveu made several recordings, including an unfailingly warm and often ardent Strauss Sonata with Gustave Beck at the piano, and an affecting, pathos-laden Gluck Melodie. After the war, with brother Jean, she recorded a sultry and many-colored Ravel Habanera, a Scarlatescu Bagatelle that reaches heart-quickening heights of rhythmic excitement, and a Tzigane seemingly animated not by short bursts of temperament, as are so many other versions, but by one long, passionate breath. A second, live Tzigane has also been preserved, perhaps still more passionate, played with Münch and the New York Philharmonic in the year of her death.
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