Norbert Brainin, violinist: born Vienna 12 March 1923; leader, Amadeus Quartet 1948-87; OBE 1960; Professor of Chamber Music, Hochschule für Musik, Cologne 1976-2005; Professor of Chamber Music, Royal Academy of Music 1986-2005; married 1948 Kathe Kottow (one daughter); died Harrow, Middlesex 10 April 2005.
Norbert Brainin was one of the 20th century's most distinguished chamber musicians. For four decades he was first violinist of the legendary Amadeus Quartet, from its foundation in London just after the Second World War until it disbanded after the death of one of its members in 1987. Thereafter Brainin continued performing with leading chamber music ensembles, and his inspirational teaching influenced generations of quartet players.
Norbert Brainin was born into a Jewish family in Vienna in 1923. After the early death of his parents, he was brought up by one of his father's brothers, who were furriers in Vienna. After Hitler's Anschluss in 1938, the entire family emigrated to London, where they carried on with their business. Brainin was interned for a few months in the Isle of Man after the outbreak of war, but he was soon released. His brief period of internment as an enemy alien was, however, to change his life. In the camp he met another Austrian violinist, Peter Schidlof, with whom he enjoyed playing chamber music. Their lives were to be inextricably intertwined thereafter.
Before the war, the talented young Brainin had received lessons from the celebrated Hungarian violin teacher Carl Flesch. After his release from internment he studied with Max Rostal, Flesch's assistant, in London and began to make a name for himself. In 1946 he won the Gold Medal award in the International Carl Flesch Violin Competition in London. He also kept in contact with Schidlof, who introduced him to another Austrian violinist from the internment camp, Siegmund Nissel.
Gradually the idea of forming a string quartet took shape. That involved taking two fundamental steps: converting Schidlof into a violist, which was accomplished with great success, after an initial period during which Schidlof and Brainin frequently changed places, and recruiting a cellist. That turned out to be Martin Lovett, an Englishman, whose wife Suzanne Rozsa was a pupil of Rostal's. In 1947, the Brainin Quartet was born, and made its début in the Great Hall of Dartington Hall in July 1947.
The ensemble subsequently changed its name to the London Vienna Quartet and then, in time for its Wigmore Hall début in London in January 1948, to the Amadeus Quartet. The musical climate at the time was favourable to chamber music - the BBC Third Programme was in its early days and the recording industry was undergoing rapid expansion - and the new quartet made an immediate impact. The Wigmore Hall recital, which was sponsored by Imogen Holst, was an outstanding success: the Amadeus was already well enough known among the cognoscenti that hundreds of people had to be turned away, on a Saturday afternoon.
The quartet made so many of the new LP records in such a short period that, by the time they made their first US tour in 1953, they already had a large and enthusiastic following on the other side of the Atlantic. They were to become the most recorded string quartet in history, and one of the most widely travelled.
They were particularly noted for their interpretations of Schubert, to which they brought characteristic Viennese warmth and commitment. Their recording of the Trout Quintet with the pianist Clifford Curzon, another noted Schubertian, was greatly admired. They were also leading exponents of Benjamin Britten's chamber music, and gave the first performance of his Third Quartet, which was written for them, in December 1976.
The four musicians stayed together for 40 years, until the sudden death of Schidlof in 1987. The chemistry between them was, by common consent, remarkable, and their success over such a long period was due in large measure to Brainin's extraordinary leadership qualities. Martin Lovett described him as a "performer touched by genius". All the members also developed individual careers, conducting master classes everywhere from France and Germany to South America and Japan. In Britain he and other members of the quartet were long associated with the International Musicians Seminar in west Cornwall.
The cellist Robert Cohen liked to tell a story about working with Brainin that captured his engaging personality. The two men were playing through the Schubert String Quintet, and the young cellist was anxious to make a good impression on the distinguished violinist, who was 40 years his senior. Midway through the slow movement, Cohen became aware of Brainin's eyes boring into him. He thought he must have committed some terminal mistake, and was about to be ejected, when Brainin suddenly said: "Do you know the one about the two violinists who met on a New York street corner and one says to the other, 'What's your violin?' The other says, 'A Strad, sixteen ninety-nine'. The first says: 'Boy, that's cheap!' " The ice was broken and Brainin and Cohen became good friends.
For many years Brainin played a 1713 Stradivarius, known as the Gibson, which he bought in 1988. The instrument had a chequered history: it had been stolen from the Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman at Carnegie Hall in the 1930s and recovered when the thief made a deathbed confession in 1985. Brainin was about to sell it to a collector in 2001 when the violinist Joshua Bell got to hear about it and made an offer which Brainin accepted.
The Amadeus Quartet were collectively showered with honours, including doctorates from the universities of London and York. They were also appointed OBE, and received the highest German award, the Grand Cross of Merit, and the Austrian Cross of Honour for Arts and Sciences.
I first met Norbert Brainin in the mid-Seventies when I was researching for the first edition of my book The Great Violinists, writes Margaret Campbell. He was able to give me endless information, not only about himself and quartet playing, but also about numerous other violinists with whom he had come in contact at some time or other. During that first interview I also recognised at once that here was a colourful character who knew exactly what he was talking about. He had a store of anecdotes that were manna from heaven to a writer. I soon came to know Norbert and other members of the quartet quite well and a lasting friendship developed.
Over the years I attended many of their concerts and marvelled at their glorious playing. But I also never ceased to be amazed at Norbert's ability to make the most difficult passages seem the easiest thing in the world. His tone, his musicality and incredible technique were quite extraordinary.
I would often consult Norbert if I had to write about a musician he knew and he was always happy to see me and answer my endless questioning. I marvelled at the way in which he managed to pinpoint the most important aspects of that person's playing and also filled me in with details of their private lives without a moment's hesitation. Some of these were not printable.
As a man his personality was larger than life and he had a delightful sense of humour. But perhaps his most endearing quality was the streak of eccentricity which sometimes caused concern among his less understanding colleagues. But in every other way he was extremely kind and I, and his many friends and fellow musicians, will miss the man and the gigantic smile that seemed never to leave his face.