WHEN Orrea Pernel played in Europe again after the Second World War, listeners said, 'This is great violin-playing, why haven't we heard of her, where has she been?' I was one of them.
I heard her first in her friend Yvonne Rodd-Marling's house in the Ticino, in Switzerland. In came this lady, quite tall, thin hair, in her sixties, unremarkable features, dressed gently tweedily, looking anybody's aunty from Cheltenham, nicely spoken, cultured voice, announcing she would play Bach's Chaconne. I was prepared for the worst but what happened was a performance of spirituality, organ-like grandeur, divine arabesque and wonderful line; afterwards one realised that the technique had never been in question.
The answers to the questions were that Orrea Pernel was ambitious only for music: she found the life of a travelling soloist not to her taste, so she opted for a quieter life, teaching at a girls' college in Vermont and occasionally coming to Europe, notably to play at Prades in the early Fifties - a contact and association with the great cellist Pablo Casals confirmed her style of playing and her way of life. She owed little or nothing to the virtuoso style of playing of the Russian school. Many of us who heard her play agreed that for comparison we thought of Joseph Szigeti, Georges Enescu and Sandor Vegh.
She was born Pernel Imogen Yolande Wilson; her father, Henry Wilson, was a distinguished sculptor, jeweller and architect. Everybody called her 'Pernie' but, finding that there was another fiddler called Pernel Wilson, she switched names. Her high intelligence owed nothing to schooling for she had none, being brought up privately between Kent, Venice and Paris, where she studied at the Conservatoire and was the first Briton to win a Premier Prix. She made her debut at the Wigmore Hall in 1928 with a chamber orchestra directed by Malcolm Sargent. In the Thirties she played under Sir Henry Wood most years at the Proms: Bach, Mozart, Brahms and Delius concertos.
She played Sibelius to Sibelius in Helsinki but focused her attention more and more on the United States, with recitals in New York Town Hall, and concertos with Serge Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony. She established a string quartet and a regular series of concerts at Bennington College for over 20 years.
After her retirement from Bennington in 1968, she re-established her career somewhat, playing concertos at the Proms with John Eliot Gardiner and Sir Colin Davis. She spent five summers at the Summer School at Dartington, Devon, teaching, playing solos and chamber music with Joyce Rathbone, Andre Tchaikowsky and Sir William Glock. Her playing was passionate but her stance was calm, no histrionics. Only once did I see that calm disturbed; she had played a big Bach and a tough Bartok sonata with no loss of cool but the concentration required for Webern's minuscule Four Pieces Opus 7 brought her out in a profuse sweat.
In her later years Orrea lived for a time in the Ticino, then moved to Devon in the mid-1970s to live with her nephew and family.
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