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Legend has it that Ida Haendel, whose birth date is variously given, picked up her older sister’s violin aged three and played a melody. Her father took her to the Chopin Conservatory in Warsaw where she was taught by Mieczysław Michałowicz (as was Josef Hassid) and then to Carl Flesch, who taught her free of charge. She also studied with Enescu, who apparently inspired her artistic maturity, but credited Flesch with bringing her ‘like a surgeon’ to technical perfection.

Being nominated ‘Best Polish Participant’ in the Wieniawski Competition (won by Ginette Neveu with David Oistrakh as runner-up) led to a small European tour and her first radio recording at Hilversum. Haendel’s London début, with the Beethoven Concerto under Sir Henry Wood, elicited praise for her ‘glow’ and ‘dignity’ from critics who compared her to the young Menuhin. More extensive touring (Europe, Israel and the Americas) began in earnest after World War II, although her rival Ginette Neveu was preferred by New York audiences. Haendel’s trademark pieces in this period were the Elgar, Walton, Sibelius and Britten concertos.

After moving to Canada in 1952 an encounter with conductor Sergiu Celibidache sparked a radical reappraisal of her approach to interpretation: ‘I now realised that all my playing was guided by instinct, not conscious analysis […] I recognised the necessity of exploring the substance of a composition.’

Haendel’s early recordings are considered lacking in the expressive power and engagement that characterise more recent releases, although there are some fine performances such as her 1945 Tchaikovsky Concerto which has a notably clean and articulate first movement and an intense slow movement melody. Achron’s Hebrew Melody, recorded with her sister Alice in 1942, lacks the depth of Hassid’s recording of two years earlier. There is an impressive level of technical control here, but it is a little stiff and mechanical, especially in rhythm. A recording from 1953 of Brahms’s Concerto demonstrates more power: immediately noticeable is the very broad bow stroke, producing a resonant sound, which is a pre-eminent characteristic of her approach. In the first movement Haendel aspirates slurred figures in a manner similar to Menuhin. A powerful vibrato throughout does not entirely disguise a number of blemishes of intonation, but the slow movement has an uncluttered sound and singing tone derived from expansive bowing. The finale is a little heavy-handed and suffers again from sounding mechanical through an unrelenting approach to accenting—a problem often encountered in her earlier playing.

Performances from the 1960s onwards are more polished and shaped, perhaps supporting Haendel’s observation concerning Celibidache’s influence. Thus her later recording of Tchaikovsky’s Concerto (1960) is a more mature conception, also improved by a better standard of orchestral playing and recording. The first movement is vivacious, impassioned and powerful, although the whole performance is stylistically old-fashioned from today’s perspective. In the finale there is some odd double-stop intonation, one of the less happy tendencies to emerge in Haendel’s later playing. Despite this, her 1965 recording of Dvořák’s Concerto contains some sensitive and heartfelt playing: the slow movement in particular is tonally beautiful and includes some use of portamento which was rare at this time.

Two of Haendel’s finest recordings date from later. A powerful and muscular Sibelius Concerto (1975) is, aside from a few isolated strident and sharp high notes, technically happier than many of her recordings. A masterly Walton Concerto from 1977 is, in my view, one of Haendel’s best recordings. She tones down her slightly sugary sound, with its ever-present wide vibrato, to suit this episodically gloomy and irascible work. There are numerous examples of scrappy intonation, but this is a poised performance fizzing with nervous excitement.

It is hard to epitomise such an iconic violinist as Haendel, but these recordings demonstrate a strong-willed and big-toned interpreter, typical of her time. The breadth and depth of her later performances in particular allow problems of intonation to be largely forgotten.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)

Role: Classical Artist 
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