Ida Haendel – The one they don’t want you to hear
by Norman Lebrecht / June 22, 2000
WITH its pristine acoustics and sexy ceiling friezes, Wigmore Hall has served London splendidly for almost 100 years as its premier venue for debutants. Most of the 20th century’s great performers took their first UK bow beneath its Pre-Raphaelite cupola, along with innumerable hopefuls never to be heard again.
No compromise: ‘I am not there to please the audience,’ declares Ida Haendel. ‘I am not an entertainer, I am there to serve the composer. I want people to listen’
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 so remarkable a first visit as the recital that is billed for tomorrow night. The violinist Ida Haendel will play 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; her exact age is a matter of musicological confusion. 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 migrated to Canada. Now, playing as richly as ever, she is shunned by sexist orchestras that insist on female soloists (only females) being wrinkle-free. It is four years since she last 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 whizz-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, the serenity of a Stern. Ida Haendel is angry, and an angry old woman is more than the twittery music business can bear.
“I don’t mind if you report this,” she begins, “I am not happy with my recent Decca recording, and Ashkenazy feels the same. When we finished it, I said, the balance is no good. This is not how we play Enescu. It is meant to be a scream from the depths of your soul, and it is not coming through.”
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 is where her age got blurred.
Every musical reference book up to and including New Grove lists her date of birth as December 15, 1924. This, she maintains, was the result of a ruse. Booked to play in the Queen’s Hall in February 1939, she was warned that the London County Council banned Sunday performances by children under 14 years – so she added three years to her age.
Her Polish birth certificate, which she produced, gives 1928 as the right year but, mystifyingly, registers her birth on January 9. Make of that what you will: physically and musically Ida Haendel is much younger than her years.
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 fingerings. “Who knows how good I could have been if I had practised really hard?” laughs Haendel.
“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 1949 plane crash. 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. Her father was the most important man in her life, followed by another – the Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache, with whom she enjoyed a 35-year friendship of rare intensity.
“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.”
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.”
Towards the end of his life Celibidache characterised her (or so he was quoted) as “a grandiose musician, but lacking spirituality”. “He was a sick person, taking a lot of cortisone,” she rationalises. “Maybe it affected his mind. He remains to me an idol and a genius.”
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, 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. Tomorrow night at Wigmore Hall will be as big as it gets.
Ida Haendel – The one they don’t want you to hear