Amadeus String Quartet Violinist Norbert Brainin Dies

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Norbert Brainin, 82, the Austrian-born lead violinist with the Amadeus String Quartet, the durable and much-recorded chamber group with a worldwide audience, died April 10 in Harrow, England. He had cancer.

Mr. Brainin was born in Vienna, where his fascination with the violin began after hearing the prodigy Yehudi Menuhin in concert. Soon, he began studying with Ricardo Odnoposoff, leader of the Vienna Philharmonic, and another teacher who wrote him a letter of introduction to Carl Flesch, the esteemed Hungarian violinist.

After the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938, Mr. Brainin, who was Jewish, headed to England, where he met fellow refugee Flesch. He also became a student of Flesch's protege, Max Rostal, who also had a stellar career as a violinist.

For a brief time, Mr. Brainin was interned at a refugee camp in England, where he met violist Peter Schidlof, with whom he would found the Amadeus String Quartet in 1947. The remaining two members -- violinist Siegmund Nissel and cellist Martin Lovett -- were part of their circle of intimates. The lineup stayed the same until the group disbanded after Schidlof's death in 1987.

Mr. Brainin had an estimable solo career, triggered by winning the 1946 Carl Flesch competition, which led to his debut as a soloist with the London Philharmonic at Royal Albert Hall. But he devoted much of his time to the Amadeus Quartet, which reportedly gave more than 4,000 concerts and made about 200 recordings.

The quartet largely adhered to a repertoire of Brahms, Beethoven, Schubert and, of course, Mozart. It rarely made forays into modern works, a notable exception being Benjamin Britten's Third Quartet, which was written for them.

Mr. Brainin had a major role in shaping the group's identity, insisting sometimes to the point of irritability that the musicians hew to the original intent of the composer. He could be exasperating but ultimately was admired by his colleagues for his devotion and vision.

Mr. Brainin was said to be enormously fond of watching soccer matches and describing his own follies, such as the time he walked to the concert platform and realized at the worst possible moment that he had left his violin backstage.

He also used terrible jokes to break the tension when younger musicians invariably became nervous in his presence.

The cellist Robert Cohen, decades Mr. Brainin's junior, once told the story of playing a Schubert work with the violinist and being a little on edge. Suddenly, the eminence grise began staring at him as if he had made some horrendous error.

Mr. Brainin interrupted their play by asking, "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, 1699.' The first says, 'Boy, that's cheap!' "

They then finished the piece and became great friends.

Survivors include his wife, Katinka Kottow Brainin, and a daughter.

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