PRODIGIES / Maestro in short trousers: David Garrett is almost certainly the finest violinist of his generation. Mark Pappenheim reports

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THERE'S a buzz about tonight's opening concert in the Brighton Festival. In place of the scheduled appearance by the ever-popular Kyung-Wha Chung, the audience will be treated to the British debut of a complete unknown. Announcing the substitution at a press conference earlier this year, Gavin Henderson, the festival's artistic director, hailed Chung's replacement, the German-born violinist David Garrett, as 'probably the finest player of his generation'. He need have had no fear of contradiction. For Garrett, although already in demand among such leading conductors as Abbado, Ozawa and Barenboim, is only 12 years old.

That Brighton has scooped his British debut is down to Henderson's other role as director of the Dartington International Summer School. It was there, last summer, that the buzz first began when the little boy from Aachen (Garrett is his American-born mother's maiden name) turned up to take part in some masterclasses with the veteran Polish virtuoso, Ida Haendel.

Haendel, now 69, famously refuses to do any teaching while she is still performing herself (she plays the Sibelius concerto with Simon Rattle and the CBSO at the Proms in September) and admits that she only reluctantly agreed to do the masterclasses, anticipating the usual clutch of dismal adolescent students. 'Then all of a sudden this little boy came towards me. So I asked, as I always do, 'What are you going to play?' But instead of replying Bach or Mozart, as they usually do, he surprised me completely by saying, 'What would you like me to play?' He had this big sheaf of music under his arm and I immediately thought, 'This boy knows more than one piece.' So I said, 'Let's start with the Tchaikovsky . . .' '

The effect was electric. As David proceeded to show off his skills and his repertoire (he has 12 concertos by heart, including the Mendelssohn, which he plays tonight), word got out about the brilliant young prodigy. 'Usually you only get a handful of people sitting in on a masterclass,' says Marcus Davey, the summer school administrator, who can claim his share of the credit for having awarded David a bursary on the strength of his demo tape. 'But by the second session, the place was packed: there were about 200 people crammed in to hear what was going on.'

As Ida Haendel attests, it was not just a question of technique. 'What David has is an emotional maturity and an understanding for music that is very exceptional. He has the spirit of the music inside himself - that's what is so amazing. Also his enthusiasm. He's so dedicated. No one has to pressurise him into playing - he plays because he enjoys it.'

Haendel arranged for David to be heard by her own manager, Sir Ian Hunter, president of Harold Holt Ltd, in a room off Wigmore Street. In his long career, Sir Ian has been director of the Edinburgh Festival and founder of the Brighton Festival, as well as manager for a host of musical greats. 'The great ones have all come to me from artists whom I represent.' Perlman and Zukerman came from Stern; Anne-Sophie Mutter via Karajan. 'One that springs straight to mind, because I also first heard him in a dingy upper room off Wigmore Street, is the 12-year-old Daniel Barenboim. There the buzz came to me from the conductor Efrem Kurtz . . . Another time, I remember Yehudi Menuhin coming back from a concert at Radio Hilversum with news of an amazing young conductor called Bernard Haitink . . .'

Even with all his experience, Sir Ian was still taken by surprise at David's audition. 'It can be really rather dreary going off early in the morning to listen to someone in some dingy little top-floor room somewhere off Wigmore Street. But, as soon as David started to play, I was just filled with happiness. He radiated sheer joy in all that he played.'

Like Haendel, Hunter was struck by the maturity of David's approach. But can a boy not yet in his teens really encompass the emotional depths of the great classical masterworks? 'That's the miracle of the thing,' ripostes Sir Ian. 'Certainly it was with Menuhin. After all, he played the Elgar Concerto in his teens - and that's an extremely profound work.' For Haendel the explanation is simple - 'Talent. Either you are born with it or you are not. And David is a natural.'

This is confirmed by David's own account of how he began playing. He was four when his six-year-old brother Alexander started learning the violin - 'but every time he wanted to play, I took it away from him, so that he couldn't practise.' 'It was not very kind,' his father agrees, 'but David was very ambitious.' And it was David, his parents soon realised, who had the talent: he only had to hear a piece to be able to play it.

At five, just six months after taking up the instrument, David entered and won the junior category of Germany's Jugend Musiziert competition. It was to be the first and only competition his parents put him through. 'He has to play for music, not against other people,' says his father, who had seen the broken friendships that resulted when four of David's former classmates were sent to compete against one another in Tokyo. 'And anyway, the strongest competition is the free market.'

Having made his first concert appearance (with Gerd Albrecht and the Hamburg Philharmonic) at nine, David was well out in the market place before Dartington. He was taken on by Adler, the doyen of German agents, earlier last year, and it was through him that he got to play for the likes of Barenboim and Ozawa (reportedly reducing the latter to tears). He is now booked to do three concerts with Mehta in Munich; Abbado wants him for Chicago next year; and there is talk of Salzburg.

Inevitably there are worries about pushing a prodigy too fast. Ida Haendel, who made her own debut at 11, dismisses any such fears. 'When people ask, 'Is he ready?' I ask, 'Ready for what?' This is not a piece of steak, that you can say, do you want it medium rare or well-done? This is a violinist. He is playing very well now. Who knows? He may not be playing so well in a few years, so why not hear him now?'

Ian Hunter agrees: 'If you look back at the Menuhins, the Sterns, the Francescattis, the Ida Haendels - they were all before the public by the age of 11 or 12.' For him, it is not just a matter of snatching the fleeting moment; he suspects you could even do damage by not letting a prodigy play. 'If David doesn't get a chance to be heard - if he were put away, as it were, until he was 18 - I believe he would suffer.'

At the same time, of course, everyone is wary of letting David be paraded about as some kind of freak. Following a well-publicised private performance earlier this year in front of the Bundespresident, David was inundated with offers from virtually every small town in Germany. Even the Berlin Philharmonic tried to get in on the novelty act by booking him to open its autumn season; but, as his father points out, that would have meant throwing out some other soloist to make way - 'and this we could not do'.

It's all a question of balance and pacing, not least because, apart from his music, David still has a lot of basic schooling to get through: 'We can't let him grow up into an ignorant nincompoop,' says Ms Haendel. And of course, at only 12, he still has a lot of growing up to do. 'It's very complicated,' his father observes. 'You know, when he plays music, he feels not like a child. But when he plays tennis or football, he is like a child. He doesn't want to lose - and, if he loses, he gets angry. So it is in a way a little bit schizophren.'

There is, of course, always the danger with child prodigies that the early star-burst will be followed by burn-out. But, looking down from the vantage-point of her own 60 years on the concert platform, Ida Haendel has no such worries about David. 'I believe only those who are not truly talented will go under,' she observes. 'He's doing OK. I feel there is no danger at all.'

David Garrett, Bournemouth SO / Andrew Litton: 8pm tonight, The Dome, Brighton (booking: 0273 674357)

(Photograph omitted)