Tasmin Little – in praise of Beethoven and Yehudi Menuhin


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!

Tasmin Little and Martin Roscoe at the Wigmore Hall – A fitting tribute

Tasmin Little and Martin Roscoe at the Wigmore Hall – A fitting tribute


Tasmin Little (violin), Martin Roscoe (piano) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 1 June 2015

Listening link (opens in a new window):


on the iPlayer until 30 June


In case you cannot hear the broadcast, I have put together a Spotify playlist of most of the music in this concert, including recordings the artists have made where possible. The playlist can be found here

What’s the music?

Brahms: Scherzo from the ‘FAE Sonata’ (1853) (6 minutes)

Dvořák: 4 Romantic Pieces, Op.75 (1887) (13 minutes)

Franck: Violin Sonata (1886) (28 minutes)

What about the music?

A well-chosen program of music for violin and piano, drawn from the period in the late nineteenth century known as ‘Romantic’. Yet as well as being from that period it is Romantic in nature.

Brahms wrote three substantial sonatas for violin and piano, each of them admired, and he also wrote a sonata in collaboration with Robert Schumann and his pupil Albert Dietrich. It was a gift to their friend Joseph Joachim, himself a composer and also a virtuoso violinist who was to inspire many more works from Brahms, Schumann and Dvořák among others.

The 4 Romantic Pieces of Dvořák were not written for Joachim, and are not greatly demanding technically – but are a perfect illustration of just how tuneful the composer’s music can be, and how through great simplicity he could write music of great expression. There is charm and wit in abundance here, music that seems to celebrate the great outdoors.

The Violin Sonata by Belgian-born French citizen César Franck is one of the chamber music masterpieces of the nineteenth century. Treating the two instruments very much as equals, it is memorable firstly for its dreamy first movement theme, which creeps in like a summer breeze, then for the darkly passionate movement that follows it. After the freedom of the third movement Franck plays his trump card, a ‘canon’ – that is, where violin and piano play the same melody but a little distance apart. This one is a beauty.

Peter Cropper. Credit: Hanya Chlala/ArenaPAL

Credit: Hanya Chlala/ArenaPAL

Performance verdict

This was a particularly moving concert, given a short while after the announcement of the death of Peter Cropper, first violinist with the Lindsay String Quartet and a close personal friend of Martin Roscoe. Not only was Roscoe intent on going ahead with this concert, he and Tasmin Little chose to dedicate their performance of the Franck Sonata to his memory – and in doing so they paid a deeply meaningful tribute.

The Franck is a lovely work and both Little and Roscoe brought out the deep-seated passion of the second and third movements, dovetailing beautifully with the charm of the outer movements. Roscoe was extremely responsive so that the melodies were passed back and forward with ease and enthusiasm.

The Dvořák Romantic Pieces were also extremely appealing, their apparent simplicity still given plenty of depth in this performance, with an especially poignant last piece. Warmth and wistfulness combined irresistibly in the first and third pieces, while for the second country dance it was as though someone had flung open the windows of the hall!

It was like that too for the Brahms Scherzo, which Little began almost before Roscoe had sat down, such was her eagerness to get on with it. The music surged forward as though intent on devouring everything in its path.

What should I listen out for?


1:26 A surge of excitement as the piece begins, the violin using its lowest string and the ‘G’ an octave above it. The swaying motion of the theme is typical of Brahms, who often writes in triplet rhythms, and it creates an appealing syncopation, an ebb and flow between violin and piano.

There is a triumphant coda from 6:30, crowning this piece by the young Brahms with a flourish.


8:32 The first piece is warm and a little wistful, affectionately played.

11:48 The second piece is a grander affair, but also takes on the form of a country dance.

14:34 Marked ‘Allegro appassionato’, the third piece at first sounds remarkably similar to the first, being in the same mood and key, but becomes more passionate with Little playing two strings at once

16:43 A shadow falls over the sunshine created by Dvořák in the first three pieces, with music of introspection and contemplation. There is however still a positive ending.


23:40 A dreamy introduction from the piano, which hovers on an exotic chord until the violin comes in with the tune, also in a dreamy state. The mood becomes more passionate – amorous perhaps – and Franck manages that expression with very little variation to the tune itself.

30:00 The second movement begins with the turbulent rumblings of the piano, which give way to a passionate violin theme. At 33:35 this reaches a natural climax, before the turbulent theme is heard again. The onward flow of the music is impressive here, a torrent of notes – so much so that there is applause at the end of this movement!

38:05 – A ‘recitative’ forms the third movement – that is a passage of freedom for the violin, after the piano has set the scene. This gives it the opportunity to show off in a semi-improvised way, and after this the violin and piano exchange ideas, leading to a natural climax point at 41:10, the music at its most passionate again. There is a strong reference to the sonata’s opening at 43:30 – an example of Franck’s ‘cyclical’ way of writing, where he brings back themes from earlier in the work.

45:07 The canon, as described above, begun by the piano and followed by the violin. Franck writes it rather sweetly, with an innocence that proves touching throughout, but again it grows in stature. The violin and piano spend much of the movement imitating each other’s melodies in this way, with references to the first movement, before returning to the main music at 49:57 and then an uplifting finish.


53:00 An encore of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance no.5, probably in the arrangement by Joseph Joachim, as described above. Little plays this with great theatricality, Roscoe very sure-footed (or should that be handed?!) by her side.

Further listening

A rather attractive companion piece to both the FAE Scherzo and the Franck Violin Sonata is BrahmsViolin Sonata no.2, a summery piece that finds the composer in relatively relaxed mode. A nice complement to this is the shorter but quite fiery Légende by the Polish composer Henryk

A rather attractive companion piece to both the FAE Scherzo and the Franck Violin Sonata is Brahms’ Violin Sonata no.2, a summery piece that finds the composer in relatively relaxed mode. A nice complement to this is the shorter but quite fiery Légende by the Polish composer Henryk Wieniawski. Meanwhile a piece that joins everything together nicely is another red blooded piece of chamber music by Franck, his Piano Quintet, which in the right performance offers some high voltage music making! The one on this playlist, by Sviatoslav Richter and the Borodin Quartet, leaves absolutely nothing to chance.

Meanwhile a piece that joins everything together nicely is another red blooded piece of chamber music by Franck, his Piano Quintet, which in the right performance offers some high voltage music making! The one on this playlist, by Sviatoslav Richter and the Borodin Quartet, leaves absolutely nothing to chance.

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