A worthy heiress to Princess Ida

Where has originality and character gone in the art of Violin playing?

On Music

This article was taken from the September issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

The day Ida Haendel died, I dug out a recording from her teens and listened in awe to her playing Sarasate’s Gypsy Airs. Performing the same notes as everyone else, Ida imperceptibly morphed a facile encore piece into complex psychodrama, a love story full of suspense and ambivalence.

“Nobody plays like Ida,” they’d say, and that was no more than the literal truth. When she came onto the stage in the late 1930s, every top soloist was distinguished by a trademark sound. Heifetz was denoted by microscopic perfectionism, Milstein by tailored elegance. Menuhin exuded agonised humanism, Oistrakh projected covert warmth, Josef Hasid fragile brilliance. You could tell them apart blindfold in the midst of the Blitz with the Luftwaffe dropping incendiaries all around.

When she came onto the stage in the late 1930s, every top soloist was distinguished by a trademark sound

“I’m not playing to project my own personality,” Ida would say when asked why other performers paled by comparison. “I always maintain that if there is a personality it’s coming through naturally.”

Taking up the austere masculinities of the Sibelius, Walton and Britten concertos, she was a fixture at the BBC Proms from 1937 but by the time she bobbed her last curtsy to the Queen in 1994 there was hardly a violinist left who could be told apart from supermarket brands. Something had gone seriously wrong.  “Presenter decline,” the agents called it.

The loss of character hit me one summer’s day in the 1990s when an ephemeral star was making an arse of himself in a German studio, insisting that analogue recording was “purer” than digital. At close of play, I hit a bar with the audio team and was halfway down a wheat-beer when the Mendelssohn concerto came over the sound system. We tried guess-the-soloist. Not Heifetz, Milstein, Ida, Oistrakh. Not x, y or z, the recent Gramophone covers. Not anyone else we recognised. Who, then?

I asked to see the CD cover. To our horror, the player was the same overrated soloist whose vanities we had endured all day long, his sound as insipid as instant coffee.

The kaleidoscopic art of violin playing had lost its flavour, like chewing-gum, in the pop song, on the bedpost overnight.

It was not hard to see why. There were two nurseries for violinists — the Russian, which turned out competition winners whom nobody wanted to hear again, and the American, which ran a conveyor belt from Dorothy DeLay’s teaching room at Juilliard to Isaac Stern’s secretary’s agency across the road.

For a while the DeLay method seemed to work with Itzhak Perlman, Midori, Shlomo Mintz, Gil Shaham and Sarah Chang among her graduates. DeLay made her kids talk about how they played and taught them how to sustain a career: “Never forget to thank the conductor after a concerto.”

Perlman dominated the scene for two decades with effortless technique and burnished sound, until he suffered burnout. He had been setting air-mile records with 100 concerts a year and seemed offended when I asked him if this was not disrespectful to the music.

Milstein used to limit himself to 30 fees a year. “I owe it to my audience to be fresh,” he told me. The decline of violin playing stemmed, in part, from excess.

There were streaks of light from the Soviet system — Kremer, Mullova, Spivakov — but no world star until Maxim Vengerov was acclaimed in the 1990s as Perlman’s successor. Vengerov seized the opportunities with both hands. Before long he was playing 120 dates a year and sounding like Nescafé. His teacher, Zakhar Bron, cashed in. Bron is now a virtuoso of violin competitions, sitting on juries and voting for his pupils, sometimes recruiting Vengerov as his sidekick.

Bron’s other ally, Boris Kuschnir, is professor in Vienna and between them, they have dulled down violin playing to a grim routine. Kuschnir’s current protégé, Sergey Dogadin, won three big competitions (Joachim, Tchaikovsky and Singapore) without showing a flicker of character.

Things are a little happier on the equality front. Where Ida was the only woman soloist in her time, the stars nowadays are mostly female, led by the immaculate Anne-Sophie Mutter, who is the musical embodiment of Vorsprung durch Technik. At 57, Mutter stays trim and purrs a perfect tone, playing anything from Kryzstof Penderecki to John Williams without a hair out of lacquer. Although Mutter has pumped her own cash into young careers, she has no singular school or definable style.

Her upcoming rivals — Janine Jansen, Leila Josefowicz, Hilary Hahn, Liza Batiashvili, Nicola Benedetti — have yet to stamp a footprint in shifting sands. Only Benedetti has engaged with the erosion of the musical future through lost education, poor imagination and lack of diversity. Excellent as these artists are, they play within the tramlines. The system has trained them to be elegant and demure, draining them of exoticism and fire.

Only one violinist plays out of her socks as Ida once did. The Swiss artist known as Pat Kop (her full name has too many syllables for Anglo-US managers to remember) is a feral disrupter. Moldavian by birth, the child of folk musicians, Patricia Kopatchinskaja plays barefoot and sometimes off the stage, leaping down to audience level, or conducting symphonies from the concertmaster’s stand. A recent video of Mozart’s G minor at unspeakable speeds had senior conductors screaming with outrage.

She performs dangerous shards of Kurtag and Ligeti as if they are child’s play. In big concertos, she dances around the platform as if the effort of playing is not enough to consume her energy. She’ll come off with blood on her neck and her fingers. The audience can see what she’s put in.

In her early forties, Pat Kop is not a world star and may never want to be one, but one orchestra v-p recently said, “There is simply no other artist like her in the world,” and that’s just how they once talked of Ida, back in the day when a great violinist guaranteed long lines at the box office. I can recognise Pat Kop’s sound in a crowded pub. There is no one like her. Which is as it should be.

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