The Final Note / La dernière notePar/by Norman Lebrecht
/ July 1, 2000
Ida Haendel - The one they don't want you to hear
With its pristine acoustics and sexy ceiling friezes, Wigmore Hall
has served London splendidly
for almost 100 years as its premier venue for débutantes. Most
of the 20th century's great
performers took their first UK bows beneath its Pre-Raphaelite
cupola, along with
innumerable hopefuls never to be heard again.
A debut at the Wigmore joins Artur Rubinstein to a cornetist from
Rotherham and a Reigate
contralto, but seldom in its diverse virgin roster has the old oaken
hall received such a
remarkable first visit as the recital that was billed for June 23rd.
The violinist Ida Haendel
played the third sonatas by Brahms and George Enescu, the latter a
sentimental tribute to her
childhood teacher (and Menuhin's).
Haendel is in her early seventies. As a child star in London before
the Second World War, she
sold out the biggest concert halls and never had need of the bijou
Wigmore. In mid-life, she
emigrated to Canada. Now, playing as richly as ever, she is shunned
by sexist orchestras that
insist on female soloists (and only the females) being wrinkle-free.
It was four years since she
had played in Britain.
For reasons of fate, fashion, human foible and her femininity, Ida
Haendel is being withheld
from the public at an age when she has most to offer. A new recording
of the Enescu sonata, with
Vladimir Ashkenazy accompanying, displays the huge, warm tone for
which she was always
famed, along with a controlled wildness and calculating wisdom that
comes from a life well lived.
A companion disc of her 1940s Decca sessions reveals an attribute
almost uniformly absent
from today's whiz-kid fiddlers - the gift of an engaging personality
that moulds the music to its
contours and makes it freshly interesting.
To violinists, Haendel is an icon. Anne-Sophie Mutter craves her
opinions and Maxim Vengerov
regards her with awe. But with few opportunities nowadays to play the
grand concertos - the
Sibelius, Walton, Elgar and Britten are her trademarks - she has
failed to acquire the Augustan
eminence of a Menuhin or the serenity of a Stern.
There was never anything safe or reassuring about the way she played.
"I am not there to please
the audience," she declares. "I am not an entertainer. I am there to
serve the composer. I want
people to listen."
She was three years old when she first felt the urge, picking up a
violin that belonged to her
father and, without knowing how, playing note-perfect a song that her
mother had been singing
in the kitchen. There was no turning back. Her father, a portrait
painter, moved the family
from Chelm in eastern Poland to a one-room flat in Warsaw, where Ida
won a competition
playing the Beethoven concerto and earned enough money to study
abroad, in Paris and London,
which was where her age got blurred.
In London, she studied with Carl Flesch alongside fellow prodigies
Joseph Hasid and Ginette
Neveu. Hasid, whom she knew from Warsaw, worked day and night at his
knows how good I could have been if I had practised really hard?"
"I always played five minutes a day. After that my father took the
fiddle away. 'Enough,' he
would say. 'Don't play any more. I want you well and healthy.'"
Hasid died in his teens of a mental disorder and Neveu was killed in
a plane crash in 1949.
Haendel is the last survivor of a school of playing that combined
technical rigour with
expressive freedom. "It bothers me terribly when people say 'nobody
plays like that any more.'
Did anyone else play like that when I was young? I was different
then, I am different now."
After the war, her concert career took off; but her record producer,
David Bicknell, married a
sultry Italian violinist, Gioconda de Vito, and she began to feel the
heat from sexier, younger,
inferior performers. When her parents and married sister sought a new
life in Canada, she
decided to keep the family together and joined them on the boat,
losing her grip on the musical
metropolis. She has never married. The most important men in her life
were her father and the
Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache, with whom she enjoyed a
35-year friendship of rare
"Sergiu had it all," she muses, "a fantastic sense of humour, four
doctorates in philosophy,
psychology, higher mathematics and musicology - and then music, which
was his life and mine.
And a good heart - he would give the shirt off his back if someone
needed it. He was a Buddhist -
and also a little bit eccentric, but maybe so am I. He remains to me
an idol and a genius."
Were they lovers, I wonder indiscreetly? "That will remain private
until the day I die," she
smiles. "You know he had a wife? She was always around from the day
we met, always."
Her musical career, like a Persian antique carpet, has mysterious
bare patches. She has never
played in Salzburg and only once in Edinburgh. She is about to make
her debut at Tanglewood on
July 27, the Boston Symphony's summer festival.
What irks her is the attitude of orchestral managers and conductors
who prefer bare shoulders
to bold interpretation. Two years ago she was invited to participate
in the LSO's Sibelius
Festival, only to find that she had been booked to play "the bits and
pieces" while Anne-Sophie
Mutter was down to play the big concerto that Haendel has owned for
half a century. Without
bitterness, she cancelled the date - and the loss was ours.
It is no consolation to her to know that a few years from now Mutter,
too, will be pushed to the
margins, while pensionable male soloists with trembling hands still
strut the circuit. It's a
man's world, the concert hall, and Ida Haendel is an innocent
casualty who cries out to be heard.
"I have been waiting 30 years for my big time," she says quietly.