Raymond Cohen: Violin virtuoso celebrated for his rich tone and sensitive interpretations

Sunday 23 October 2011 02:59

Raymond Cohen was that rare jewel: a teenage musical prodigy who matured into one of the finest violinists of his generation. Able to combine a rare musical insight with remarkable resilience, he remained at the heart of British musical life for more than half a century.

The son of a local music teacher, Cohen was educated at Manchester Grammar School. While there, aged 15, his prodigious musical talents won him the Adolph Brodsky scholarship to the Royal Manchester College of Music, where he studied with the former leader of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the Danish virtuoso Henry Holst. That same year, he also took his place in the Hallé as the youngest member in the orchestra's illustrious history.

For some years, during the summer months, and in common with other members of the orchestra, Cohen would migrate to the Fylde Coast. While there – already the youthful leader of Blackpool Symphony Orchestra – he would join the resort's North Pier Orchestra under the baton of the Hallé viola player Mons Speelman. Twice daily, this 36-piece salon orchestra, with its winning mix of popular and light classical confections, unfailingly attracted a large and loyal following.

In 1939, now back in Manchester with the Hallé Orchestra, he added considerable lustre to an already burgeoning reputation by playing three concertos – the Bach E Major, Mendelssohn and Brahms – all in one evening. However, like so many of his generation, his seemingly effortless progress was rudely interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War. For six years he served as a clarinettist with the Band of the Royal Corps of Signals.

Returning to civilian life, in 1946 he won the inaugural Carl Flesch International Violin Competition. His prize was a London debut at the Stoll Theatre playing the Mendelssohn Concerto. It famously led the celebrated conductor John Barbirolli to describe him as "the most brilliantly gifted young English violinist I have heard in many a day."

Leaving Manchester to settle permanently in London, he appeared as a soloist with all the leading British orchestras of the day and for a time led the Goldsborough Orchestra. In 1959, Sir Thomas Beecham appointed him as leader of the Royal Philharmonic. Remaining in post until 1965, he later returned on numerous occasions as guest leader.

As a performer, he revelled in the unique opportunities afforded by the acquisition of a magnificent 1703 Stradivarius. His seemingly effortless delivery, unerring accuracy, warm, rich tone and sensitive interpretations endeared him to audiences worldwide. Likewise, his sense of humour, generous spirit and impeccable timing won him the high regard of colleagues.

In later years, now inhabiting a much more international landscape, he travelled widely. While still engaged in extensive orchestral, concerto and recital work, it was chamber music that increasingly came to the fore. He formed a formidable partnership with the pianist Franz Reizenstein and then with his wife, Anthya Rael; the couple were later joined by their cellist son, Robert, to form The Cohen Trio. Together, their authoritative advocacy, particularly of the more intimate offerings of Antonin Dvorak, added a new dynamic to an already richly varied discography.

He was a keen tennis player, and equally unforgiving on the snooker table; it was Cohen's breadth of intellect that helped make him such an inspiring teacher, notably at the Royal College of Music. Remaining a keen student of the musical scene, in recent years nothing irritated him more than those musicians who regularly eschewed any use of string vibrato. Typically, he was never slow in committing his views to print.

Kenneth Shenton

Raymond Hyman Cohen, violinist: born Manchester 27 July 1919; married 1953 Anthya Rael (one son, one daughter); died London 28th January 2011.

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