Ida Haendel, the Polish-born prodigy with a fiery sound and unassailable technique who became one of the foremost violinists of her generation, died July 1 in Pembroke Park, Fla.
Ms. Haendel had been ill with kidney cancer, said her nephew Richard Grunberg, who confirmed the death, in a nursing home.
Her age was a matter of debate. According to her British passport, she was 91; her nephew said she was 96. He said she had a birth certificate that her father had produced in London to prove she was 14, to avoid a minimum-age rule for paid concerts. Promotional materials on other occasions gave different ages to make her appear younger.
A student of noted pedagogue Carl Flesch and composer, pianist and violinist George Enescu, Ms. Haendel was a living link to an early 20th-century school of violin playing centred on simmering sound and dramatic phrasing. In lyrical passages, her ardent vibrato and swooping portamento lent her playing a strong vocal character, while her articulation in virtuosic passagework could be crisp to the point of percussive.
An example is her 1955 recording of the Brahms concerto with Sergiu Celibidache, a conductor with whom she had a close and sometimes tumultuous working relationship. Her signature piece was the Sibelius Violin Concerto, which she played with a contained urgency that critic Geoffrey Norris in The Telegraph of London once described as “fire and ice” and “mind-blowing.” After a 1949 performance in Helsinki, Jean Sibelius wrote her a letter and congratulated himself “for having found a performer of your standard.”
Until the 1980s, Ms. Haendel was virtually the only woman among the top tier of concert violinists. In later decades she complained about being sidelined by younger players in a market that prized attractive new faces. But well into her 80s she embraced any opportunity to play. In a 2004 documentary by Dutch director Paul Cohen, she declared matter of factly, “I am the violin.”
Cellist Steven Isserlis, who played Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with Ms. Haendel and pianist Martha Argerich, said Ms. Haendel’s music making always conveyed passion. “It was strong, vibrant, focused and came from right deep inside her,” he said in a phone interview. “She really was the violin – there was no separation.”
Ida Hendel was born in Chelm, Poland, on Dec. 15, possibly in either 1923 or 1928, to Nathan Hendel, a portrait painter, and Faigie (Goldgevicht) Hendel. (Ida later added an “a” to her last name in homage to the baroque composer.) According to her autobiography, Woman with Violin (1970), she was 3½ when she picked up her older sister’s violin and reproduced a melody she had heard her mother sing.
Her father rented an apartment in Warsaw so she could take lessons there, and in 1935 she won the Warsaw Conservatory’s gold medal for virtuosity. She never attended school.
She moved to Paris on the invitation of the great Hungarian virtuoso Joseph Szigeti, who had offered to teach her but was frequently away on tour. Instead, Ms. Haendel began to study with Mr. Flesch, whom she later followed to London, as well as Mr. Enescu.
Ms. Haendel, then living there, gave her first Proms concert in 1937 at the Queens Hall, playing the Beethoven concerto under the direction of Henry Wood. Her family was Jewish, and her father, who was in London with her and sensed that war was imminent, arranged for Ms. Haendel’s mother and sister to join them in Britain. They became British citizens.
During the war, Ms. Haendel performed for British and U.S. troops and was featured in the morale-boosting concerts at the National Gallery put on by pianist Myra Hess.
She entered into a fruitful artistic collaboration with conductor Rafael Kubelik, with whom she recorded Bruch’s first violin concerto in 1948 and Beethoven’s in 1951. She also worked with conductors Thomas Beecham, Charles Munch, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Simon Rattle, among others.
Her advocacy for the concertos written by Benjamin Britten and William Walton helped bring them into the mainstream. She also performed the premiere of Allan Pettersson’s second violin concerto in 1980 and was the dedicatee of Luigi Dallapiccola’s Tartiniana Seconda in 1957. She was one of the first Western soloists to be invited to perform in China, part of a 1973 tour with the London Philharmonic.
Ms. Haendel moved to Montreal in 1952 and several decades later settled in Miami Beach. She lived in a house that she had bought for her father so he could be near writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, a close friend.
She never married. She spoke of feeling unattractive and invisible to men. “Not only my father thought of me as an instrument only,” she said in one interview.
In The Haendel Variations, a documentary released in 2018, she cut in when the interviewer asked whether she had sacrificed her private life for music: “Nobody ever told me, ‘Put down the violin, let’s get married, you will be my wife and that’s that.’”
No immediate family members survive.
In her later years, Ms. Haendel, whose wardrobe was dominated by flouncy sleeves and Fauvist colours, doted on a succession of dogs that were all named Decca, after her long-time record company. She took several to the taxidermist and put at least one on display in her Florida home.
Asked in the 2004 documentary what it had been like to be a child prodigy, she said, “I was old,” adding, “I’m more of a child now.”
Mr. Isserlis recalled an impromptu performance Ms. Haendel gave around 1 a.m. in a late-night diner in Westchester County that he described as filled with bikers. The conversation had turned to Robert Schumann’s Violin Sonata in D minor, and Mr. Isserlis offered that he didn’t know the piece well. “Do you want to know how it goes?” she asked.
“Before I could stop her she took out her violin and played Schumann, with all the bikers watching,” Mr. Isserlis said. “When she was done everyone erupted in applause.”
Ms. Haendel travelled in 2006 to Auschwitz, where she played the prayer from the Dettingen Te Deum by Handel for a delegation including Pope Benedict XVI. Her recorded performance of the simple melody is impassioned, her tone anguished yet irrepressibly vibrant.
Mark Samberg, a cousin who grew close to her in later years, said in a phone interview that Ms. Haendel once told him, “It is the emotional content of the sound that moves the spirit.”
He said she often returned to a memory from early childhood. “When she was a little girl practising, her 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 her, her entire life.”
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