Obituary: Ion Voicu

Margaret Campbell
Monday 03 March 1997 01:02
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Ion Voicu, the elder statesman of Romanian violinists, was once described as having "magic in his fingers".

This is not surprising since he could trace his lineage back to the legendary Leopold Auer through two of his teachers, David Oistrakh and Abram Yampol'sky and to Viotti through a third, George Enescu. In addition to his distinguished achievements as a soloist and later, conductor, Voicu was also greatly respected as a teacher.

He was born in Bucharest into a family where professional musicians had flourished for some 300 years. He had his first lessons with Constantin Niculescu when he was six and entered the Royal Academy of Music in Bucharest at 14, where he was considered sufficiently advanced to be placed in the fourth year studying with George Enocovici. He graduated in 1940 having completed the seven-year course in three.

His first job as a rank and file violinist in the Bucharest Radio Orchestra and his initial encounter with the celebrated conductor Willem Mengelberg nearly terminated his career before it started. At the first rehearsal, Mengelberg thought Voicu was not paying attention and threw him out of the room. During the interval the musical director asked Mengelberg to hear a very gifted 17-year-old violinist from the orchestra. When Voicu entered, Mengelberg exploded saying he could not even pay attention, so where was the talent? Nonetheless, the director persuaded him to hear him play, and after some Bach, Beethoven and Mendelssohn, Mengelberg said: "Now I understand. He is not meant to be sitting in an orchestra, but standing - as a soloist!" Shortly afterwards, Voicu made his solo debut with the same orchestra and the critics were ecstatic.

At another concert shortly afterwards, George Enescu happened to be in the audience and was so impressed that he offered to give Voicu free lessons. In 1946, Yehudi Menuhin went to Romania to help Enescu organise a national competition and Voicu won first prize.

Three years later, Voicu first appeared as a soloist with the George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra and made several tours abroad. In 1954 he achieved one of his greatest ambitions, to study with Abram Yampol'sky at the Moscow Conservatoire. He told me: "The idea of studying the classics with someone in a direct line to Auer was very exciting. He somehow managed to combine a mastery of the instrument with his own musical feelings, but above all he encouraged us to think for ourselves." Following the death of Yampol'sky in 1955, Voicu began studies with David Oistrakh and took a doctorate at Moscow University.

The association with Oistrakh was much more than a professor-student relationship and they became close friends. The lessons which Voicu had at Oistrakh's home often went on all day. "He was like a brother - a friend - whatever. We would meet whenever we could, in Brussels, Paris, New York, and when he was in Bucharest we would spend time together as a family. His death was such a loss to the musical world and to his many friends."

On his return to Romania in 1957, Voicu's career took on international dimensions. He made his British debut at the Wigmore Hall in 1963 and received rave reviews: as a result he was engaged to play with the Philharmonia, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and the Halle orchestras; the recordings he made of the Mendelssohn and Bruch G minor concertos with the LSO and Rafael Frubeck de Burgos were reissued in 1994.

In 1965 Voicu made his American debut at Carnegie Hall in New York and it was so well received that he was immediately engaged by the impresario Sol Hurok to take on a coast-to-coast tour. This success continued throughout the years during which time he played with the world's leading orchestras and conductors including Fistoulari, Silverstri, Dorati, Berglund and Barbirolli, with whom he had a particular affinity. In 1969, he founded the Bucharest Chamber Orchestra of which he was conductor and soloist and since 1973 was also director of the George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra.

Voicu was a dedicated teacher; he taught privately in Bucharest and founded a summer course at Predeal in the Carpathian Mountains. The violinist Eugene Sarbu described how "From my early childhood, he took great interest in me and my playing. With affection, he was always ready to give me invaluable advice, which was a great source of inspiration and encouragement." He was a frequent guest on the faculty of many famous schools including the Menuhin Academy in Gstaad, the Nice and Lausanne Conservatoires and the Mozarteum in Salzburg; he was visiting professor at the University of Istanbul from 1973. For many years right up to his death he gave masterclasses world-wide and sat on the juries of international competitions including the Carl Flesch in London, the Bach in Leipzig, the Sibelius in Helsinki, the Enescu in Bucharest and the Tchaikovsky in Moscow, where he was Vice- President several times.

Voicu received many honours including the Eugene Vase Medal in Brussels, Romania's First Class State Prize, and "Romanian People's Artist" which he alone has received. He played on a magnificent Stradivari violin, the "Elder", dated 1702, which belonged to a pupil of Joseph Joachim.

Voicu was not only a great violinist, as a man he was kind, generous and good humoured, and incredibly modest, totally unspoilt by fame.

Ion Voicu, violinist and composer: born Bucharest 8 October 1923; married (one son, one daughter); died Bucharest 24 February 1997.

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