Violinist Ida Haendel is visiting London this week for a radio appearance, a masterclass and one of those ‘in conversation with’ events. I ducked out of a rehearsal with local band Harmony Sinfonia to have a cup of tea with her.
Haendel is deceptive. Petite, with a firm grip, the 87 year old wastes no time with pre-interview pleasantries as I put my bag down by the table on the 6th floor of the apartment building I meet her in on Saturday. “My editor wanted me to call my autobiography, ‘Woman with a Violin’. What do you think of that?” she asks. “It makes me think of a painting by Vermeer,” I reply. She and her PR laugh. This is going to be a breeze.
It’s difficult knowing exactly what the angle should be. Do we talk about notable recordings? Will she remember her first appearance at the BBC Proms? Is she likely to clear up the confusion over whether she was 10, 12 or 15 years of age when she stepped on to the stage at the Queen’s Hall in 1937. Or was it 1938?
She’s also quick to point out her British nationality. I’m thrown by this. It is of little consequence to me whether she’s British or not. By the time I’ve bashed the record button with my nail-bitten stump, I can see nothing before my eyes but someone who occupies an illustrious black and white past. The early years of the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts saw her become a fixture at the Queen’s Hall and later at the Royal Albert Hall. Such a notable name should <em>surely</em>be able to recall detail from the past I – by virtue of the nostalgic view I have of it – am desperate to get a taste of. I need Humphrey Carpenter-style biographical detail.
I probably should have just read her autobiography instead. The crushing reality I stumble upon during the 31 minute interview is that she can’t recall the minutae. Or won’t. And, that in failing to meet my unrealistic expectations, I come to realise that she is just a musician – a performer – who has done a job for a great many years. And that age and experience brings with it an unrealistic expectation in the audience that wisdom should equal endless anecdotal evidence. We demand it. You’ve had this illustrious career: so, prove it – entertain us with titbits from your past.
Ida didn’t disappoint by any means. Infectiously good humoured, wickedly sarcastic and shamelessly flirtatious, her warmth and pride was endearing. She is old school talent: understanding the dynamic between interviewer and interviewee and playing her part with the same ease as working with a conductor to deliver a concerto.
And that comes from experience. Endless engagements in London – 68 at the BBC Proms, some others documented favourably in the press charting her progression from ‘juvenile talent’ onwards. As early as 1936, The Times reported that the 12 year old Haendel displayed ‘an accurate ear as well as a full tone and a technical command of her instrument that is remarkable for her age even these days.” Sympathy abounded in March 1937 review of an LPO concert featuring Haendel playing Beethoven violin concerto in a performance which “almost got its head cut off” by conductor’s Sir Adrian Boult slightly more cavalier approach to the work. A performance of the same concerto described as having “a silky tone and pure intonation” in a 1945 Schoenberg/Beethoven Prom made the second-half contrast with Schoenberg’s new piano concerto “violent”. Her performance of Elgar’s Violin Concerto 1978 Prom with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Bernard Haitink was reviewed in The Times with faint praise and scathing criticism: “a lively temperament, marvellous high notes and accurate intonation … but hers was a self-indulgent reading, inclined to hurry, unwilling to relax for simple lyricism, careless about details of nuance”. She last made an appearance at the Proms playing Britten’s Violin Concerto in 1994 in a concert attended by the Queen. Haendel’s 1975 recording of Britten’s concerto is on EMI and included in their Britten box-set.
I didn’t raise the reviews during our brief time together. To do so seemed, disrespectful verging on mean. But, Norman Lebrecht’s piece from 2000 (Ida Haendel – The one they don’t want you to hear) seemed like good fodder. “I have the greatest respect for Norman Lebrecht,” jumped in Ida as soon as I signposted where the interview was going next, “even if he says I can’t play the fiddle.” And then confusion on my part. Had Norman criticised her playing at some point in the past? Had I put Ida immediately on the defensive? And if I had, was that really fair? This was after all, meant to be a fairly gentle interview.
Her response to what now feels like clumsy questioning was plucky. When pushed on whether it was difficult confronting failing ability in old age, her resolute response inadvertently projected an air of disappointment over proceedings, reminding me of the very same point made to me a week before by County Music Adviser Philip Shaw about how teenage fearlessness quickly falls by the wayside as we approach adulthood. Like sports-men and -women, there comes a point when the joints fail and technique falters. Only, unlike sports people, no great announcement is (usually) made when a musician retires.
‘Does the classical music industry favour the young over the old?’ I ask her. ‘Of course,’ came her reply, “It’s always been like that.” We’re all doomed, basically. Thank God for recorded music.
Ida Haendel appears leads a violin masterclass at the Britten Theatre at the Royal College of Music on Wednesday 3 July at 2pm and joins Rob Cowan in conversation at Cadogan Hall on Friday 5 July at 7.30pm.
She’s also making an appearance on Radio 3′s In Tune on Monday 1 July 2013.
Her recordings of the Britten & Walton Violin Concertos with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra is available on Spotify and embedded below.