A couple of weeks ago I was making coffee for breakfast. My wife Yukiko came into the kitchen and said, “What are you smiling about?” I said I was thinking about Nona.
It’s hard to say why that’s important, but it is. I think: If you think about a person you’ve known for rather a long time, and smile, it means a lot. Especially if they are no longer here.
So what comes to mind when I think of Nona? Sometimes it’s her, playing the violin (not her “violin playing”!). We’re not supposed to make comparisons between players because it’s not fair on so many levels… everyone has something unique to say. But I can say without hesitation that Nona’s performances of some pieces have stayed with me as private benchmarks. The most affecting performance I ever heard of the Janacek Sonata was from Nona one evening in Snape. I learned more about that piece listening to Nona play it than at any other time. The best Beethoven Septet I ever played was with Nona. Simply put, she did everything “right”. Of course it had to be like that, the most natural, unaffected, beautifully phrased and nuanced Beethoven ever. Probably the best Värklarte Nacht I ever played. The best Bougeois Gentilhomme.
My Yukiko didn’t know the Bourgeois Gentilhomme, but after we’d poured the coffee she did a quick Youtube search and found a really very good recording. But it wasn’t the same as Nona. Everything Nona did was so completely human, never forced or projected, never trying to be a great, ambitious, competition winning “violinist”. The way she played one of the movements was as if she were serving you afternoon tea while chatting about your family, looking at the trees and flowers and talking about the state of the garden. Another movement she played as if the whole of Vienna had come out to dance and she was the dancing master in charge. She was more Viennese than the Viennese.
When I first joined the London Sinfonietta I was in awe of her. She was the ultimate professional, always on time, always in tune, always expressive, always relaxed … apparently... and always in command of herself. Imagine my shock when Nona confessed that the other day she’d got out of bed at 1:00pm!! WHAT? Impossible. So she was also a completely normal, fallible, funny person.
She didn’t have particularly big hands. She didn’t look like a virtuoso. But when she played she stood strong and tall, totally in command… though whether she felt all that I’ll never know. I remember her playing the Kurt Weil concerto at a Prom and I remarked to her that she seemed as cool as a cucumber, not a trace of stress or strain or nerves. How did she do that? She said, “Oh, well, you know… when you get to my age it’s not worth worrying about anything too much!”
I don’t remember a single occasion when Nona lost her dignity. She may have been cross, indignant, hurt, fighting for the rights of someone else… and she did that all the time… but she never lost her elegance, grace, or her smile. It seemed it was her default to smile. And even if she felt deeply concerned about something, always her smile would return. She apparently couldn’t help it.
She cared for people. She never stopped caring. She had a profound sense of social justice. Her generation of musicians… they seemed to care deeply for one another. I always had the impression that she thought the music was more important than she was and there were many of her generation who felt the same… that there were plenty of things that mattered much more, that were more important than the musicians. She talked often of Ben Britten, and about making music with him in the ECO. I learnt everything I know about Ben, his music and how to interpret it, from Nona. She taught me what his particular marks and directions meant, how and why he cared about the bowing.
Because of her incredible breadth of understanding, she could play Zenakis, Strauss, Brahms, Beethoven, Bach or Dowland with equal commitment and sensitivity, and with an intuitive understanding of the style, of their personal language. I never… not once... heard her complain about what she was being asked to do on the violin in a contemporary piece. Or perhaps she did, but I’ve totally filtered it out because her commitment was so absolute. I never heard Nona express the tiniest bit of cynicism. Her spirit didn’t seem capable of it.
And I think that is why she produced the sound she did. There was nothing forced, absolutely no affectation. It was simply a magnificent, generous, warm, embracing sound, huge when necessary but at other times so intimate. It was what she was: humanity and generosity seemingly without end. So she loved her students, and felt lucky to be allowed to teach. She said that one of the wonderful things about teaching was that she could ask students to play a piece as she would really like to hear it, but without her having to do the practise! On the other hand she once told me that she’d been listening to a violinist on the radio a couple of days before, and found herself thinking, “Hmm, that’s nice. Yes, I would try to do it like that. Oooh yes, I agree with that! Yes, that’s not bad at all…”
Then the announcer came on and said, “We’ve been listening to Nona Liddell, playing…”