She was three when she picked up her older sister’s violin and told her mother: “I can play what you are singing.” When she heard her child play the exact harmony, her mother screamed — “Look — my baby is playing the violin!”
That prodigy was Ida Haendel, whose dramatic and visceral performances over the last eight decades have been described as a mix of ice and fire. One of the great post war soloists, her playing was matched by her flamboyant style and colourful dress sense. Watching this diminutive figure clasped to her violin, was like watching lightning strike.
Noted for her original interpretations of Sibelius and Brahms, Ida Haendel, who has died aged 96, could reflect the composer’s mood but also embody a sense of their homeland. An eccentric personality with a skittish sense of humour, she infused Bach’s Chaconne Second Partita in D Minor with a surprising post-modern urgency, while Sarasate’s Zinuenerweisen flowed with vigour and passion. Rendering his Carmen Suite in her shimmering crimson dress, she became Bizet’s fiery temptress. All the colours the violin gave her were intensified by her personal magic.
Born in Chelm, in Eastern Poland, as Ida Hendel, she escaped the Holocaust because her parents brought her to London to study music. Extended family members were less fortunate. Like many artists of her generation, that sense of love, loss and pain was endemic within the rhythms of her performance. She gave morale boosting concerts in London during the Second World War, organised by pianist Myra Hess, and made her American debut at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1946, before moving to Canada. She divided her time between Montreal and Miami. She could barely wait to travel as soon as the war was over, joyfully sailing to America. She had considerable success in the Soviet Union in 1966, performed in Hong Kong and in 1981 was the first Western soloist to play in China after the Cultural Revolution. Haendel was seen by many as a woman of the world and became known as the grande dame of the violin. She was a performer who demonstrably loved the drama of her music, the depths of Brahms, the truncated rhythms of Sibelius.
In 2018 in a video made by David Gannell, to whom she was mentor, she appeared in her much ornamented Miami home, looking every inch the colourful Floridian eccentric in her wide-brimmed hats, accompanied by her current pooch – each was named Decca after the record company which first signed her. In conversation she showed a charming if edgy humour. Lovingly polishing her bow, she was asked if she regretted never having married and had children, to which she replied “I don’t feel the loss of being a mother.”
Ida Haendel has been particularly praised for her interpretations of concertos by Sibelius and William Walton. Her playing has been described as moving but never sentimental. She told Classic FM that while her Orthodox ancestry equated playing the violin with wedding celebrations, her less conventional parents knew she was destined for greater things. “I believe in signs and wonders, in reincarnation,” she said, certain she had played the violin in a former life.
Haendel told her story in her autobiography Woman with Violin in 1970. Her artist father Nathan longed to become a violinist himself, but was prevented by his rabbi father, and decided to push the chances of his prodigy daughter instead. Moving to Warsaw to further her studies, she impressed the noted Polish pianist Bronislaw Huberman, and later studied in Paris with Romanian musician Geroge Enescu and Hungarian violinist Carl Flesch, whom she eventually followed to London.
She made her debut in a Queen’s Hall recital in December, 1936 and launched into a series of Proms with her champion, Sir Henry Wood, after whom the Promenade Concerts are named. She opened with Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in September, 1937, which had won her the Huberman Prize for young Polish performers in 1933. She played the Sibelius Violin Concerto at her penultimate Prom at the Albert Hall in 1993, having totalled 68. Her finale was Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto.
In the years after the Second World War Haendel was the only woman among the leading violin soloists of her era. The death in a plane crash of Ninette Neveu, the prizewinning soloist in Warsaw’s Wieniawski Competition, in which Haendel had come seventh, left the field open to her. She remained the sole woman among her élite contemporaries until the 1980s, but later complained about a market that sought out attractive younger faces.
With the help of her father, Haendel had secured a birth certificate lopping five years off her age. This small vanity partly derived from her fascination with the silver screen stars of the era, but was reinforced in the deliberate misspelling of her name Hendel to Haendel, implying a family connection with the 18th century composer Handel — originally Georg Friedrich Haendel.
In 1991 Haendel was appointed CBE. In 2006 she performed Handel’s Dettingen Te Deum for Pope Benedit XV! at Auschwitz during the Pope’s tour of Poland. “Imagine a Jewish woman playing where it all happened,” she recalled, “playing in front of the Holy Father.”
Her performances retained their ardent, percussive feel until she was well into her 80s.”I am the violin”, she asserted in a 2004 documentary by Dutch director Paul Cohen. “I was never a child,” and declared that if she’d had her pianist sister Alice’s looks she could have conquered the world.
She played with leading conductors from Zubin Mehta to Otto Klemperer, the great Beethoven exponent. She once said: “You cannot play with inspiration when the conductor is an imbecile.” She particularly warmed to the sensitive and thoughtful Rafael Kubelik, under whom she played with the Philharmonia Orchestra. The term “ice and fire” came from the Telegraph music critic Geoffrey Norris, describing her rendition of the Sibelius Violin Concerto in Helsinki in 1949. Some felt her interpretations did not reflect current trends. The Washington Post arts critic Philip Kennicott found her “gracious yet wild style of playing popular in the early 20th century but now “extremely rare.”
One criticism was her reluctance to engage with less familiar works, with some notable exceptions. “I am not there to please the audience,” she told Norman Lebrecht in 2000. “I am there to serve the composer.”
In 2006 she returned to Chelm for a concert. “My soul will probably always be in Chelm,” she said. She is survived by two nephews.
Ida Haendel: born December 15, 1923. Died July 1, 2020