Ida Haendel, the Polish-born violinist who lived in Montreal from 1952 to 1989, died early on July 1 at her home in Florida. Her nephew Richard Grunberg described her passing as peaceful on social media.
Haendel’s age was long a subject of debate, turning in part on the question of whether she really could have won the Polish Prize in the 1935 Wieniawski International Violin Competition in Warsaw at age seven (when, according to her own testimony, she could not read music). Many sources still accept Dec. 15, 1928 as her date of birth, which would make her terminal age 91.
That she was an astounding prodigy is not in doubt. Settling in London with her family in 1936, Haendel studied with Carl Flesch and Georges Enescu, whom she characterized, respectively, as her violinistic and musical mentors. By 1940 she was a recording artist and regular soloist at the famous Proms concerts in that city. Her wartime activities include playing for troops, workers and injured soldiers.
Haendel was in demand worldwide as a concerto soloist in the ensuing decades, not least in Montreal, where she moved with her protective father, following her sister Alice. The family was close-knit. Haendel performed with the Montreal and Toronto Symphony Orchestras and was seen on CBC television broadcasts.
“When I first came here, people thought either that I didn’t make it in the world of music, or that I would become passé now that I had settled in Canada, or both,” she told the Montreal Gazette in 1987. “But this never entered my mind.”
Haendel collaborated with a host of famous conductors. Vladimir Ashkenazy worked with her both as a conductor and a pianist. She was particularly close to the charismatic Romanian maestro Sergiu Celibidache but never spoke conclusively about the nature of the relationship. Haendel never married.
Known for a warm, intense sonority that belied her slight physique, Haendel was a powerful exponent of virtuoso repertoire and core works like Bach’s solo Sonatas and Partitas, which she recorded impressively for the Testament label in 1995. She played all the major concertos as well as some repertoire outliers, such as Allan Petterson’s challenging Violin Concerto No. 2.
“Watching this compact virtuoso gave rise to many questions,” this author wrote after a 2005 benefit recital (with pianist Walter Delahunt) in the Théatre Maisonneuve presented by Music in Me, a group dedicated to peace in the Middle East. “How is it that younger fiddlers apply twice the pressure and get half the tone? Who gave Ida Haendel, but so few other players, the secret recipe for the perfect legato?”
She was famous in particular for the Sibelius Violin Concerto. A performance in the late 1940s of this craggy score earned her a note of congratulation from the composer himself. Among the non-musical dignitaries Haendel met during her long career was Pope Benedict XVI at a commemorative outdoor concert in 2006 on the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
In the same summer Haendel received an honorary degree from McGill University and performed with the Israel Philharmonic (with which she had first appeared, when it was still called the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, almost 60 years earlier).
Asked in 2006 whether she might consider slowing down, she responded, without missing a beat, “This is slowing down.”
Haendel was active also in and around Miami Beach, where she lived for her last 30 years. In 2016 the Miami Music Festival and its competition winners gave a concert in her honour. She made friends easily, even among critics. Jacob Siskind (1928-2010) of the Montreal Gazette and Ottawa Citizen was a particularly devoted and perceptive admirer.
A speaker of eight languages, Haendel was a lively conversationalist in all of them, if her charmingly accented English was any measure. She was a dog lover who named each of her pets Decca, after the British recording label.
Haendel gave master classes and served frequently as a judge for violin competitions. Among the many younger performers who were inspired by her example is David Garrett. This German violinist appears in The Haendel Variations (2018), one of several documentaries and performances on YouTube that successfully capture her unique vitality as a person and artist.