Violinist Tasmin Little is a cherished English violinist, loved for her interpretations of the classics in the repertoire but also for her pioneering work in ensuring less heard British works for the instrument get their due. More recently she has championed the worth of classical music education, and ensuring classical music is promoted to those who do not often hear it.
Her strong relationship with Chandos Records has yielded a number of high quality recordings, among them a recent release of Beethoven’s complete sonatas for violin and piano with Martin Roscoe. She gave generously of her time in this recent interview, talking with characteristic enthusiasm about Beethoven, Yehudi Menuhin, the importance of musical education – and how to stop those aches and pains violinists so often get!
Can you remember your first encounters with classical music?
The answer is no…because it was probably while I was inside the womb! Neither of my parents is a classical musician, but they love classical music and my father was an actor who sang. There was always music in the house, and they had very broad taste, so I remember Blood, Sweat & Tears and The Beatles in particular. I grew up with the whole range, including the genre of musicals as I grew up. It was the same as talking, listening to music!
How did you develop a love of the violin?
As part of my parents’ record collection they had some violin concertos. I used to listen to them and as I got older, say five or six years old, I began to know what some of the instruments were. I loved the violin especially, and then the piano. My sister began to learn the violin, but it was a disaster and I thought it would be a disaster if I tried too! We begged her to give up, and as a result she is now a visual arts star!
When I was seven I fell ill with chicken pox and I hit on the idea of teaching myself the recorder while I was ill in bed. I did that, and loved it. So when I got better I had piano lessons – and then I thought I would learn the violin.
What experience of playing Beethoven did you have prior to recording the sonatas?
I’ve played Beethoven for years and year, as a student at the Yehudi Menuhin school, where I played it in string quartets and tackled some of the violin sonatas. They are difficult, so I didn’t play them until my early teens – probably the Spring Sonata first. The more complex works such as the C minor sonata I left until later, and then the big mountain, the Kreutzer Sonata, I tackled when I was 21.
Tasmin with her accomplice in the Beethoven sonatas, pianist Martin Roscoe
“Of course when you play these works you need a really good pianist, and it wasn’t until we were at least in our teens that we could cover this music. I’ve been playing some of the sonatas for 30 years, others for 20-25 years, so I’ve known them for a long time. It is really important with works of this nature and complexity, and works that are well recorded to have mature thoughts on them.”
The Violin Concerto I have known since I was 21, and it has been in my repertoire for a long time. More recently I also learned the Triple Concerto, which I recorded with Howard Shelley and Tim Hugh, but it is the Violin Concerto that I completely adore. One of the earliest recordings I had was made by Zino Francescatti, that I have listened to and played into the ground.
Was it daunting recording the sonatas?
I always wanted to record this repertoire, as it is the big mountain of violin and piano repertoire. The violin sonatas by Mozart are a bit more juvenile, whereas with the Beethoven sonatas they are all of such quality you need comparable maturity and sophistication to play them. I took a deep breath before doing the sessions! We did the first five, working fast, in three days – and we felt we were on such a role, Martin and I. Then six months later we finished off the remaining five. It was good to do it like that, otherwise we would have suffered a hit in quality. There was a feeling of momentum.
To begin with in the sonatas they are spring-like, but then that all starts to change. The A minor work, Op.23, is quite a nervy piece but still can’t resist a few jokes. The C minor sonata, Op.30 no.2, is a steely work from start to finish, there is no let up in the drama or intensity. The Kreutzer Sonata is another dimension removed from that, it is an incredibly complex piece. He thinks of it as a concerto for both players, and that’s how it has to be represented. We each represent the orchestra if you like, there are times when he has the fire, and I am in battle against him and his orchestra.
With the ten works covering each period of Beethoven, do you feel like you’re really getting to know him as you progress through each work?
It’s actually misleading, because nine of the sonatas were written in a small space of time, within two years of each other. Then there is a long pause before the last work, Op.96. They are not so representative of the different periods in his output, and that’s why, unlike Mozart, you have this tremendous consistency, within that, he was such a master of so many different styles.
With the equal billing for piano and violin in the Beethoven sonatas, does it help that you have such a good understanding with Martin Roscoe?
Definitely. Beethoven actually puts the piano before the violin in his title pages, it says Sonata Für Pianoforte und Violine – so he considers them piano sonatas with the violin. Because of that I felt strongly that Martin should have lead billing on the cover for this release.
You have got to have someone who is capable of mastering the strength of these pieces, but also the subtlety of colours and the sophistication, mastering the great tunes. You need someone who knows how to play a great tune without being fussy. That’s one of the great strengths of Martin’s playing.
Do you think the sonata recordings are a nice balance to the English music that you’ve recorded?
Absolutely, it is very important to have a balance. I know I’m well known for promoting British music – and there is so much wonderful music that comparatively few people are promoting. I love the standard repertoire too though – Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky – and I enjoy playing them in concerts.
What is lovely about the relationship I have with Chandos is their support of those aspects of my recording, they don’t try to box me in. The recordings have been varied, with British repertoire but also with the works by Schubert, Richard Strauss and Respighi that I have recorded recently – that’s quite a range. It gives me a much more interesting balance.
You were taught by Yehudi Menuhin as part of your education. What would you say he left as a legacy for violinists?
I would say he left us so much. From a practical point of view he commissioned so many works, to think of just a few those by Bartók, Walton and Panufnik. He also was very much interested in bringing to people’s attention other composers such as Delius. He was very good at communicating, and he used his abilities to bring these to the public.
I also think he was one of the first genuine crossover artists, thinking of his work with Stéphane Grappelli, Ravi Shankar and world music. He made it acceptable to work in different genres, it was fine because he was doing it. He was a great teacher – he founded the school I went to – and he also used his position politically to bring people together. In addition to what he left as a violinist he was trying to use his position to unite conflict – and he did this in the House of Lords, through his work as a conservationist and humanitarian.
You’re also judging the Yehudi Menuhin competition. Given all that you’ve done for music education and youth, is it important for you to be putting something back into this level?
I was at a state primary school in the 1970s, and music had a high position in the curriculum. There was a full time violin teacher, and if there hadn’t have been I would not have started. Because there was, and because music was so high on the governmental agenda, all these things were possible.
That is why it is so important to keep lobbying to make sure that gifted people do not fall through the net. I have given two speeches to the House of Commons and the House of Lords about this, and have written letters about it to them as well.
On another tip entirely, do you suffer from aches and pains as a violinist?
The violin is such an unnatural playing position, horrendously so! You have the full weight on one shoulder, and because of that I do work hard keeping shipshape – I have massages and treatments. I have had a few problems so far but I think generally I have been lucky. You have to take care, as it’s a great physical input as well as emotional and intellectual.
Finally, what violin concertos would you suggest to someone who hasn’t heard any before?
There are two that spring to mind. The first is the Mendelssohn, which is a sparkly, light piece. The second is the Bruch Violin Concerto no.1, the one that I get asked to play the most. It is dark, mysterious and very romantic!
For those who have already heard a few violin concertos I would suggest the one by Glazunov, which I absolutely love!