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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 3, No. 3

Ida Haendel

by Alan Horgan / November 1, 1997

Ida HaendelCD.jpg (18560 bytes)I once skipped a Metropolitan Opera performance of Verdi's Ernani (unthinkable!) to hear violinist Ida Haendel with the Toronto Symphony. This was a wise move. She gave an absolutely jaw-dropping performance of her signature piece, the Sibelius Violin Concerto. After a radio broadcast of the work many years ago, the composer himself wrote her a congratulatory letter which she has used ever since to terrorize substandard conductors.

Coming in the immediate post-Heifetz generation, Haendel's approximate contemporaries were Menuhin, Ricci, Szeryng, and Stern. There is some dispute about her actual age. According to the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, she was born in Poland in 1924. Her talent was recognised early on and her family moved from Chelm to Warsaw to facilitate her studies. After winning the Hubermann Prize at the age of ten, she was granted a scholarship to study with Szigetti in Paris. It didn't pan out, so she ended up with the great Carl Flesch. She also took some lessons from the Romanian violinist and composer Georges Enescu.

Ida Haendel made her London debut in 1936. In 1939 she settled there, having narrowly escaped Poland ahead of the German invasion. In 1952 she moved to Montreal. When Franz-Paul Decker took over the directorship of the Montreal Symphony from Zubin Mehta, he was absolutely thunderstruck to learn that she had never been invited to play with the orchestra. This was hastily rectified. Since the death of her father, she is no longer a Montreal resident, dividing her time between homes in London and Miami. An autobiography, Woman with Violin, appeared in 1970 and she is now said to be at work on another volume.

Though she is admired by composers and performers alike, Ida Haendel's name is not a household word. Who cares? She is a fiddler's fiddler. Music, not PR, comes first. A true musical aristocrat, it is impossible to imagine her making guest appearances with the Muppets (are you listening, Itzhak Perlman?). She gives strong, forthright, unsentimental accounts of the great works she has been playing in public for over 65 years. This absence of emotional self-indulgence has caused some critics to accuse her of coldness, but this is missing the point altogether.

Two important reissues of Haendel's older EMI recordings are available on the Testament label. The earliest (Testament SBT 1083) features the Bruch Concerto No. 1 in G minor and the Beethoven Concerto (with the Joachim cadenzas). The Bruch was recorded in 1948 and the Beethoven in 1949. Rafael Kubelik conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra, then only three years old, and the producer was the legendary Walter Legge. As they were originally 78s, there were no retakes or splices. It is honest work and I do not find the minor imperfections troublesome. There was a problem of pitch distortion on the master tapes, impossible to eradicate and duly noted in the excellent liner notes. Interpretively, Haendel does not wallow in emotionalism. It's all there on the page and she gives it straight, or at least relatively so. As a student of the great Carl Flesch, she does bring some of the old school to her contribution, taking some license transposing certain passages up an octave, and so forth. Haendel sanctioned the re-release of the material while emphasizing that the interpretations are representative of her forty years ago, not today.

The second disc (Testament 1038), recorded in 1953, features the Brahms concerto with Sergiu Celibidache conducting the London Symphony and the Tchaikovsky concerto with Sir Eugene Goossens conducting the Royal Philharmonic. This is a rare opportunity to hear these two great conductors, especially the enigmatic Celibidache who steadfastly refused to make commercial recordings for forty years thereafter. According to the booklet he said that "listening to a record is like going to bed with a picture of Brigitte Bardot." He used to insist on enormous amounts of preparation time and drove orchestral musicians insane by making them play scales in rehearsal.

Neither of these fine CDs will please everyone. Haendel's slightly steely tone is faithfully captured, but those listeners desiring lush and sensuous sound will be disappointed. The orchestras are so very English. The acid tone of the oboes gives it away every time. It's the sort of sound with which you could curdle milk at a hundred yards. The packaging on both releases includes interesting period photos and the notes are a treasure trove of juicy biographical information.

Ida Haendel will be joined in recital by pianist Jonathan Feldman at Théâtre Maisonneuve on Monday December 1 at 8 p.m. The concert, sponsored by Pro Musica, includes the Chaconne from the Bach Partita No. 2, the Brahms Sonata No. 3 in D minor, and the Enescu Sonata No. 3. For more information call 845-0532.

(c) La Scena Musicale