Ida Haendel

A tribute to the late Ida Haendel, comprising her complete Decca Recordings (1940–1997), newly remastered, as well as her performances at the 1982 Huberman Festival. Lavishly illustrated, Original Jackets, Limited Edition.

On her death in July 2020, obituaries worldwide paid glowing tributes to the effervescence of the violinist Ida Haendel, in both her playing and her person. Both with and without her bow, she captivated listeners and fellow musicians such as the cellist Steven Isserlis: ‘She spoke through her violin, proved herself through it, lived within the music she made. She was a marvel, an icon; each note she played was the result of total conviction – and as a consequence was totally convincing. She had been groomed from the beginning to be a star – and a star she was.’

On 1 September 1939 Poland was invaded by German Nazi forces, an act which precipitated the beginning of World War II. Shortly before invasion a Polish Jew, Nathan Hendel, foresaw what was going to happen and took his wife and two daughters to the UK. For he and his younger daughter Ida this was less of an abrupt change than for most refugees, since they had already paid two visits to London.

Though he was a talented portrait painter, Nathan had longed as a child to become a violinist, but had been actively discouraged by his parents. He was thus determined that the instrument should be taken up by one of his children. Ida’s elder sister Ala took violin lessons but showed no more than adequate playing potential. But one day Ida, then three-and-a-half years old, was listening to her mother singing as she cooked in the kitchen. She told her mother that she could play the notes of the song she had just sung on her sister’s violin, and despite being told not to touch it she disobeyed. Even the reduced size child’s violin was huge in her tiny arms and hands, but she played her mother’s song just as she had said she could. How she was able to do this remained a mystery: Haendel later thought it might be the result of some kind of reincarnation, for it seemed as if she was just carrying on something that had gone before.

The infant herself decided that playing the violin was to be her destiny, and Nathan immediately encouraged her and arranged lessons. Thus his dream would come true, though not quite in the way he had first expected. Ida’s first teacher at the age of five was a young woman called Esther Greenbaum, who observed that Ida’s hand positions were already perfectly and naturally formed to play her instrument. Nathan moved his entire family from their small hometown of Chelm to Warsaw when Ida was six, simply so that he could secure the best teacher to nurture her exceptional abilities. At first she studied with Professor Mieczyslaw Mihalowicz at what was then called the Warsaw Conservatoire. He apparently taught her very little of consequence, but he did at least allow her natural talent to develop.

While at the Conservatory Ida made rapid progress, winning its Gold Medal and then a prize in a competition held in the name of the great violinist Bronislaw Huberman. The prospect of her entering for the first International Henryk Wieniawski Violin Competition to be held Warsaw during March 1935 opened up. For this Ida would need special preparation. Her father consulted Huberman and other prominent violinists including Szymon Goldberg and Roman Totenberg. The name of Josef Szigeti was mentioned by all concerned, but he was then working in Paris. The cost of travelling and staying abroad was beyond the means of Nathan, but a Jewish philanthropic organisation, the B’nai B’rith, came to the rescue and father and daughter were able to make the expedition.

They had received an offer of lessons from Szigeti, but he had unexpectedly signed a contract for an American tour and would leave Paris very shortly. It was then arranged that Ida should study with another eminent violinist and teacher, Carl Flesch. The Wieniawski Competition was won by Ginette Neveu, still in her teens, with the ten years older David Oistrakh in second place. Ida, then scarcely more than an infant, received a special prize for a Polish violinist.

Ida and her father made their first visit to London in 1936. Ida entered the management of Harold Holt and was due to give a recital when a snag arose. London County Council’s regulations stipulated that no child under the age of fourteen should give public musical performances. So it was that Ida suddenly achieved an extra few years of age and made her London debut at a recital at the Queen’s Hall in December 1936. This in itself was extraordinary, since debutants usually took their first bows in the much smaller Wigmore Hall. Her concert was a great success and attracted the attention of no less than Sir Henry Wood. It was speedily arranged that Ida would play the Brahms Concerto in Queen’s Hall under Sir Henry on 31 January 1937, and then the Beethoven Concerto a few weeks later. Not only that, but Wood engaged Ida to play the Brahms again at a Promenade concert later in the year. ‘I probably didn’t understand it: you can’t expect a child to understand a genius like Brahms. I was using pure instinct,’ she later said. But Wood wrote, ‘Her tone and feeling in the concerto were so beautiful that I seemed to hear dear old Ysaÿe at my side again’.

The winding up of Ida’s age had an unfortunate consequence in that a birthdate of 1923 or 1924 was erroneously entered in some reference sources, and in later years it was mistakenly thought that she had intentionally wound her age down by declaring what was in fact her correct birth date of 15 December 1928. According to Haendel’s older sister – and a birth certificate that her father presented to satisfy an age requirement for an early performance in London – she was born in 1923. Haendel later displayed a certificate giving 1928 as her birth year.

In the years immediately before war broke out Ida pursued her studies in Paris and then in London with Flesch and after a while she then studied with George Enesco in Paris. Much later she compared the two.’“You found a kind of spiritual element in Enescu. He was a genius, no doubt about it. Flesch was wonderful, a great personality, a great teacher, but there was something special in Enescu’. It was remarkable that as such a young student she was able to measure up to their intellectual demands.

By then Ida’s surname had been changed from Hendel to Haendel. In 1940 she became a British citizen, and supported the war effort through her playing with great commitment.

Nathan was keen for her to make recordings. Nothing came of test recordings made for HMV at the Abbey Road studios in April and May 1939, but Decca’s recording manager Harry Sarton agreed to undertake sessions with her at the company’s West Hampstead studios. These took place on 9 August 1940. Ida didn’t care for the atmosphere of the environment but just as she felt no nerves when playing in public, the recording process held no terrors for her: ‘At that time I was still so unsophisticated that all I looked for was a beautiful tone, flawless technique, tasteful glissandi. All this I found in my playing and I was more than content’.

On that first day she recorded twelve sides, ten of which were passed for publication, and all but one of these were of the first ‘take’. Sarasate’s Zapateado and the second part of his Zigeunerweisen were re-recorded on 10 September. The pianist, Adela Kotowska, had accompanied violinists in Carl Flesch’s classes, and like Ida, had come from her native Poland to seek refuge in England. As will be seen from this set’s contents list, all the items were encore pieces, artist based, to show the prowess of a prodigy, and not marketed for their musical content. They sold comparatively well, for in those early days of war the gramophone had become a popular form of home entertainment, though Decca was then a very junior player in the classical recording market compared with the EMI labels HMV and Columbia.

Ida’s next Decca session, held at West Hampstead on 18 February 1941, was an altogether more serious occasion, since the repertoire comprised Beethoven’s Eighth Violin Sonata and Brahms’s Third Sonata. The pianist, Noel Mewton-Wood, was an established soloist, though he was still in his teens. He had come to London from Australia to study at the Royal Academy of Music, and was now based in England. Sadly, for whatever reason, the Brahms Sonata was not published and no test pressings have survived.

Between the sonata session with Mewton-Wood and the end of 1942 Ida made several more recordings, mostly of showpieces and mostly with Kotowska, though repertoire exceptions were Schubert’s Sonatina in G minor and Mozart’s Violin Sonata in E minor, KV 304. The pianist in the latter recording was Ida’s sister, now known as Alice, who had abandoned the violin and was now a capable pianist, though she didn’t pursue a professional career. The sessions with Alice which took place in October and December 1942 also included Sarasate’s Romanza Andaluza and Joseph Achron’s Hebrew Melody. The Achron was Alice’s only recording to have survived.

That was all until April 1945, when Haendel had the chance to make her first ever recording with an orchestra, of the Tchaikovsky Concerto (albeit slightly abridged), in London’s Kingsway Hall. The war had almost ended, there was no more threat of bombing and orchestras could record in London with complete safety. The choice of Basil Cameron as conductor might have been Ida’s, since she always found him to be a highly responsive and perceptive colleague and enjoyed working with him. The National Symphony Orchestra was a short-lived, though first-class ensemble, formed by the wealthy amateur conductor Sidney Beer from the ranks of servicemen who were returning to pursue or resume playing careers in civilian life. Decca was now using its ‘ffrr’ (full frequency range recording) technique. This had been developed by the company’s engineer Arthur Haddy in the form of an underwater microphone capable of detecting and cataloguing individual German submarines by each one’s signature engine noise. An adaption of this technique enabled a greatly enhanced frequency range to be captured in Decca’s commercial recordings.

As ever, though, each movement had to be split into 78rpm lengths. This didn’t worry Haendel particularly. ‘In those days you just had to play and hope for the best. It was easier in a way when tape came in, but not less strenuous in the end, since you still wanted to play to perfection, so that you did not have to go back and do a re-take’. After a day’s break, Haendel returned to Kingsway Hall to record Saint-Saëns’s Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, again with Cameron and the NSO.

A second concerto recording was made in September 1945: the work was Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole in its four-movement version and the conductor of the NSO was the Spaniard, Enrique Jordá. This time there was no lucky star over the venture, because for some reason the recording was not issued and no longer exists, since even test pressings do not seem to have survived.

The next recording was of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, made just over a week later with the NSO and Sargent. Though the conductor showed more respect for Ida in later years, his response to the teenage violinist in those days was a patronizing: ‘you play remarkably well, young lady, but you have much to learn’.

Over the next two years or so Haendel made a modest number of violin and piano recordings, mainly with Kotowska and the experienced accompanist Ivor Newton. The most substantial of these was of Stravinsky’s Divertimento, a transcription by the composer and his violin partner Samuel Dushkin of the Suite from the ballet Le Baiser de la fée, which was based on music by Tchaikovsky. By no means all of Haendel’s recordings were published, the reason for this probably being a shortage of the shellac material that comprised a 78rpm disc. She was one of many artists who suffered in this respect at that time. A particularly grievous loss was Haendel’s only recording of the Debussy Violin Sonata.

Haendel’s last Decca 78rpm recording was of the Dvořák Concerto, with the NSO under the baton of Karl Rankl, then Music Director of the Covent Garden Opera Company. This took place In Kingsway Hall at the end of July 1947.

For a while there had been divisions between Nathan Hendel and Decca’s management. One of the problems was that Haendel had been a familiar artist to UK audiences during the war: in the four Prom seasons of 1941 to 1945, for instance, she had made no less than nineteen appearances. And so she had become identified as a ‘domestic’ artist rather than as an ‘international’ celebrity, as she should have been. At a time when Decca was seeking to internationalise its catalogue with foreign artists this stood against her.

Nathan Hendel therefore entered Ida into a contract with EMI, and for the next 30 or so years Haendel made a number of well-regarded recordings on the HMV label, and a handful for Supraphon in Prague. But there were fewer recordings than there should have been, and it is perhaps only in more recent years that Haendel’s true status has been fully recognised. Original copies of her LP records, for instance, now fetch very considerable prices on the collector market.

Haendel admired Vladimir Ashkenazy’s qualities as a musician, and the two enjoyed an excellent rapport in performance together. When the suggestion arose that Haendel should make a new violin and piano recording in 1996, Ashkenazy was her preferred pianist partner, and he agreed to take on the role. Since he had then been an exclusive Decca artist for three decades, it was naturally arranged that this company would undertake the recording. The choice of repertoire was clearly that of the violinist, skilfully chosen to represent the work of three twentieth-century nationalist composers. Each work too, is associated with specific violinists. Szymanowski’s Mythes were composed in collaboration with Pavel Kochánski. Bartók approved of and played Zoltán Székely’s transcription of his Romanian Folkdances and wrote his First Rhapsody for Josef Szigeti, while Enescu wrote his Third Violin Sonata for himself to play.

In December 1982 the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s Music Director Zubin Mehta organised a remarkable week-long festival at Tel-Aviv to celebrate the birth centenary of the great violinist and founder of the original Palestine Orchestra, Bronislaw Huberman. Somehow Mehta managed to get seven leading violinists to participate, and even more remarkably, by dint of great diplomacy, he managed to arrange a varied program of concertos; of course everybody wanted to play the Brahms or Beethoven.

That Mehta should program the Sibelius Concerto with Haendel as soloist was a natural consequence. The work had long been one of the cornerstones of her repertoire and after a 1949 performance in Helsinki the composer had written to her: ‘You played it masterfully in every respect. I congratulate myself that my concerto has found an interpreter of your rare standard’. Yet it was not until July 1975 that Haendel was able to make a commercial recording, for EMI, with Paavo Berglund conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Since then three or four of her live performances of the Concerto have surfaced. The Tel Aviv performance included in this set and also that of the Vivaldi concerto were recorded live during the 1982 celebrations; among the festival violinists who do not participate in the Vivaldi were Itzhak Perlman, Henryk Szerying and Pinchas Zukerman.

During 1996 Roger Norrington embarked on what was intended to be a complete recorded cycle of the Vaughan Williams symphonies, with shorter pieces by the composer used as CD fill-ups. In the event only five of the symphonies were recorded, plus the Tallis Fantasia. Ida Haendel’s performance of The Lark Ascending was due to be coupled with works that remained unrecorded. Left high and dry, it stayed unpublished – until now. This newly-released performance rounds off a sequence of discs that show contrasting aspects of Ida Haendel’s art from different periods of her career. It is offered as a tribute to a very fine and much-loved artist who passed away at her home in Florida Miami on 30 June 2020.

During 1996 Roger Norrington embarked on what was intended to be a complete recorded cycle of the Vaughan Williams symphonies, with shorter pieces by the composer used as CD fill-ups. In the event only five of the symphonies were recorded, plus the Tallis Fantasia. Ida Haendel’s performance of The Lark Ascending was due to be coupled with works that remained unrecorded. Left high and dry, it stayed unpublished – until now. This newly-released performance rounds off a sequence of discs that show contrasting aspects of Ida Haendel’s art from different periods of her career. It is offered as a tribute to a very fine and much-loved artist. Sadly, it now becomes a posthumous tribute, since Haendel died in Miami on 1 July 2020.