By Sasha Margolis
Ida Haendel died on the thirtieth of June. Known as the “grande dame of the violin,” Haendel was one of the last of a legendary generation of fiddlers, and a performer blessed with perhaps unprecedented violinistic longevity. Student of the now-mythic teachers Carl Flesch and George Enescu, she made her first recordings at the outset of WWII. Yet well into this century, she was still going strong: her bow-arm, with its incredible sustaining power; her facile left hand, with its narrow, highly efficient vibrato that could reach stratospheric levels of intensity; and her musical mind all remained at a high level. Her life as a violinist may therefore be said to have lasted an incredible nine decades.
Haendel was born in the city of Chelm in Poland. The date of her birth is a matter of some debate, but evidence points to 1924 as the likeliest year. Displaying serious violinistic talent at age three, and pushed by an ambitious stage father, Haendel studied with Mieczyslaw Michalowitz at Warsaw’s Chopin Academy, then with Flesch in London and Enescu in Paris. (She was one of a bevy of remarkable Polish-Jewish youngsters who sought out Flesch’s teaching: others included Henryk Szeryng, Szymon Goldberg, Josef Hassid, Bronislav Gimpel, and Roman Totenberg.) At nine, she won Poland’s Huberman Prize, and at eleven, came in seventh at the Wieniawski Competition behind much older violin stars including Ginette Neveu and David Oistrakh.
When she made her debut at the Proms in London at age thirteen, critics compared her favorably with Menuhin. She would eventually perform at the Proms sixty-eight times and become a British citizen. Later, she was named Commander of the Order of the British Empire. (She also spent significant periods of her later life living in Montreal and then Miami.) As WWII ended, she was embarking on a major solo career that would take her all over the world, and into the company of the greatest orchestras and conductors.
Haendel was a large-scaled player who thrived in the great Romantic concerti. In her younger years, her musicality was especially fiery and impulsive, and her playing laden with beautiful slides, which never stuck out as added-on afterthoughts, but were fully integrated into the musical flow. Later, her approach to tempo seemed to grow more expansive—a tendency enabled by her rare ability to make long notes always lead somewhere. As a performer, Haendel was noted, till the end, for her colorful taste in concert-wear—which could even run to such exotic material as snakeskin. As a human being, she was beloved for her charming personality and beguiling sense of humor.
Haendel began recording in 1940. Perhaps most compelling among her early discs is a 1942 recording of Joseph Achron’s Hebrew Melody, extraordinary for its sincerity and richness of tone, played with her sister Alice at the piano. In 1945, Haendel recorded the Tchaikovsky Concerto with Cameron and Britain’s National Symphony. In a world full of great Tchaikovsky recordings, this youthful effort from Haendel earns a special place for its unabashed songfulness, uninhibited expression, beautifully vocal slides, and total immersion in the music. In the Canzonetta, an unexpected, Polish-Jewish augmented second provides an extra delight. From two years later comes a galvanic Dvořák Concerto, played with Rankl and the National Symphony.
The Sibelius Concerto, which Haendel recorded with Ančerl and the Czech Philharmonic, was one of her calling cards. After hearing her play it, the composer wrote: “I congratulate myself that my concerto has found an interpreter of your rare standard.” In another pairing with Ančerl and the Czechs, Haendel plays Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole with an engaging storytelling quality, satisfying passion and, at times, touching tenderness. Among her most acclaimed recordings was the Brahms Concerto, in which she outlines clear and simple shapes while playing with a tone of great ruggedness and density, in felicitous collaboration with a conductor she idolized, Sergiu Celibidache, and the London Symphony. In a recording with Berglund and the Bournemouth Symphony from the 1970s, Haendel’s well-sustained phrasing and high-level facility allow her to convincingly convey the concerti of Walton and Britten. And a late triumph, recorded in 1996, pairs Haendel, still in incredible form at seventy-two, with the brilliant pianism of Vladimir Ashkenazy, playing Szymanowski’s Mythes and the Third Sonata of her teacher Enescu.
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