Ida Haendel, violinist

Born: December 15, 1923;

Died: July 1, 2020.

IDA Haendel, who was regarded as one of the foremost violinists of her generation and was described by critics as “the grande dame of the violin”, has died from kidney cancer, aged 96, in a nursing home in Miami.

Haendel was the first female classical music performer to be given a recording contract by a major label. Such was her talent that her signature piece of the Sibelius Violin Concerto was revered by the composer himself.

Critics praised her to the heavens. The Daily Telegraph’s Geoffrey Norris once described her playing as “fire and ice”, while the Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott wrote of her “gracious yet wild style of playing, popular in the early 20th century but now extremely rare.”

Yet Stephen Welsh’s introduction to the violin legend – who would become a close friend – featured Haendel crawling along a floor on her hands and knees, her then 86-year-old fingers scratching at carpet.

“I was working on the London-Miami flight,” recalls Welsh, a British Airways Cabin Services Director, from Bridge of Weir, Renfrewshire, “and this older lady was down on the floor. It turns out one of the other passengers had lost a diamond from their ring. And when Ida heard this, she didn’t simply leave it up to crew to find it; she pitched in, got down on her knees and in a few moments she had it in her hand.”

Welsh and Haendel would meet regularly over the years, the musician calling often from her Miami home. “I loved the fact she carried her priceless Stradivarius with her on every journey,” he recalls. “She laughed when I suggested this was dangerous. ‘Who’d think a little old lady like me would have anything of value?’”

Haendel, who spoke eight languages and lived in Britain and America, had spent her life touring the world, all the time enhancing her reputation as a violin superstar.

Born in Chelm, in Eastern Poland, she was just three years old when she astonished her parents by playing a song on her older sister’s violin. Her father, a portrait painter who had himself been denied the chance to become a violinist by his rabbi father, lived vicariously through his daughter and proceeded to hot-house the little girl with the huge talent.

Ida never attended school. Instead, her father rented an apartment in Warsaw so that she could take lessons there, and in 1935 she won the Warsaw Conservatory’s gold medal for virtuosity. Her precocious talent was also recognised by the Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti, who agreed to teach her free of charge – provided she travelled to Paris.

Ida and her father moved to France, which led to a linking up with a new teacher in Carl Flesch, whom they eventually followed to London in 1937. Fearing the rise of Nazism in Germany and the threat to Jewish families, Haendel’s father arranged for his wife and other daughter, Alice, to come to Britain also.

Ida’s London debut came about in a Queen’s Hall recital in December 1936 which achieved huge critical acclaim. During the war, she played a series of morale-lifting concerts. Her fame, however, came at a price. When asked later if she had enjoyed the life of a child prodigy, Haendel indicated a lost youth. “I was old,” she said, poignantly, adding, “I’m more of a child now.”

Meantime, the Haendal success story continued. She was one of the first Western soloists to be invited to perform in China, part of a 1973 tour with the London Philharmonic. Her concerts across the world sold out.

Haendel’s performances were characterised by her lack of movement on stage. “The violin rested on her shoulder, she closed her eyes and she didn’t look at the orchestra”, says Stephen Welsh. “I asked her once what she thought of the contrast with the energetic styles of the likes of Vanessa Mae and Nicola Benedetti. She replied, ‘They are very talented but the performance, all this jumping about, is about them. It’s not about the composer.”

He added, “As for closing her eyes, she said, ‘Stephen, there would be something wrong if I couldn’t play this with my eyes shut’.”

While being off-the-scale talented, it’s fair to say Ida Haendel was rather eccentric. She wore bright Fauvist colours, big wild hats and long antique coats. She doted on a succession of dogs that were all named Decca, after her record company.

She was also very funny. Once, when approached by a fawning critic who told her she was the best violinist in all the world, her reply was, ‘How do you know? Have you heard all of them?’

She was not a performer who restricted her output to the concert stage or recording studio: she once gave a 1am impromptu performance in a late-night diner filled with bikers, who when she finished “erupted in applause”, said one eye-witness.

Yet, for all the joy she found in performance and family and friends, Haendel never found a permanent partner in life. It was rumoured she carried a torch for a Hungarian musician but the relationship didn’t develop. She spoke of feeling unattractive and invisible to men. “Not only my father thought of me as an instrument only,” she said.

Says Welsh: “Her Stradivarius story reveals so much about her character. It was gifted to her by a London music dealer, and in turn, without being asked, she offered him a percentage of her future earnings. The instrument is now worth millions, but she said to me that on her death she hoped it would be passed on to a young person with great musical talent, preferably someone from a less privileged background.”

But what really made Ida Haendel such as special, world-class, violinist? Says Welsh: “She told me once, ‘I was with my father at a concert, aged four, and I closed my eyes and I couldn’t hear a thing except the violin. It spoke to me. Nothing had made me feel like this before or since. I was overwhelmed’.”

Haendel herself offered an explanation. “When I was a little girl practicing, my father would be listening in the other room, and he would say, ‘I hear what you’re playing, but what does it mean?’ That question stayed with me, my entire life.”