Tasmin Little in Interview: Szymanowski and a Special Anniversary


Tasmin Little Photo: Paul Mitchell
Tasmin Little
Photo: Paul Mitchell

Tasmin Little is a much loved, multi-award winning violinist whose career encompasses a wide and diverse range from international concerto and recital performances to masterclasses, workshops and outreach work in the community. She first picked up a violin aged six, and went on to study at the Yehudi Menuhin School and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where she was a gold medal winner. She is now firmly established as one of today’s leading violinists world-wide.

Tasmin has performed on every continent in some of the most prestigious venues of the world, such as Carnegie Hall, Musikverein, Concertgebouw, London’s Royal Albert Hall and the South Bank and Barbican Centres, and she has appeared as a concerto soloist with many of the world’s leading orchestras, from the Berlin Philharmonic and Leipzig Gewandhaus to the Philharmonia, New York Philharmonic, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and all the BBC Orchestras among many others.

In 2011, she won international critical acclaim and a Critic’s Choice Award at the Classic BRITs for her recording of the Elgar Violin Concerto with Sir Andrew Davies and the Royal National Scottish Orchestra. She has also been particularly associated with the music of Delius, producing a television documentary about him, The Works, for BBC 2. Another documentary followed Tasmin’s creation of The Naked Violin in 2008; a solo recital programme offered for free internet download as part of her ongoing campaign to promote as wide access to classical music as possible for people everywhere.

Her repertoire and discography are exceptionally wide-ranging, and she has given numerous World Premieres. Most recently, her newly commissioned work, Four World Seasons by Roxanna Panufnik, was premiered as a live broadcast on the BBC at the start of Music Nation weekend, leading up to the London 2012 Olympics. She remains one of the few violinists to perform György Ligeti’s challenging Violin Concerto.

In 2012, Tasmin was appointed OBE in recognition of her Services to Music.

Cardiff’s St David’s Hall is welcoming Tasmin, together with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and conductor Olari Elts, on November 15 for a rare performance of Polish composer Karol Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No 2. The programme will also include Szymanowski’s Concert Overture and Brahms’ Symphony No 1. Tasmin spoke with Steph Power about the concerto – and about a special anniversary.



Steph Power: I understand that your performance of Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in Cardiff will be a special event for you?

Tasmin Little: Yes, it will be my 1,400th professional performance! I feel very happy that it’s taking place in Cardiff because it was at St David’s Hall that I gave one of my very first professional concerts back in 1984 or so. I came to do the Delius Violin Concerto with Yehudi Menuhin and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and I remember being very excited because everybody had spoken about St David’s Hall and what a beautiful hall it was to play in. I was still a student then but I was beginning to do some concerto engagements and I felt incredibly posh playing in such marvellous company in such a beautiful acoustic! And here I am, 1,400 concerts later, returning to St David’s Hall, so it’s a very nice venue to be celebrating that particular occasion in.

You’ve championed Delius throughout your career – and you received your OBE last year, which happened to be the 150th anniversary of Delius’ birth.

It was such a special year to get the OBE because of Delius’ anniversary, and I played the concerto at the BBC Proms which was a great joy. But of course there were the celebrations for the Queen’s Jubilee too so that made it feel like a rather nice year to get that OBE!

Your OBE was in recognition of your services to music. Part of that has been your ongoing community work. How are the Naked Violin and the project around that going?

It continues to grow and and it takes me into the community quite regularly. It’s also taken me abroad. I’ve gone to China and to America twice earlier this year; the first American visit was working with school children, introducing them to aspects of the repertoire, and that was really marvellous. I wouldn’t be surprised if we were heading towards three-quarters of a million downloads by now and the idea is that the Naked Violin music will simply stay up on the web for people to listen to or download just as they choose. But the community work is very much alive and breathing and evolving.

Alongside Delius – and Elgar of course – Eastern European music has also been a long-term love of yours.

Very much so!

Speaking of Szymanowski, his Violin Concerto No. 2 – like the 1st Concerto and all his works – is not played so often is it?

No, it’s a work that, sadly, has been neglected in the concert hall and I’m not at all clear why. There are certain pieces that are not very often played and you can see why they’re not played! But with the Szymanowski I’m genuinely baffled as to why this piece is not played pretty much in every concert season, because it’s incredibly vibrant and colourful. It’s very passionate. Szymanowski’s music is on a grandiose scale anyway, particularly with regard to orchestration – he writes so beautifully for orchestra. I’m often riding on top of the wave of a marvellous volume of sound in the Szymanowski, but it’s got so many different moods; there’s contemplative music, very rhythmic, punchy, driving music and there’s a beautiful cadenza that’s bang in the middle of the piece.

It is an extraordinary work – and that cadenza in the middle gives the violin a very structural role in the piece overall as it pulls together the strands of the first part before going into the next part.

It is a mixture of a cadenza and a sort of development section if you like. The violin goes off into a kind of reverie, thinking of some of the themes that have been played up until that point and full of interesting effects with harmonics and pizzicato, with lots of different double-stopping – there are many notes played at once. And then this leads rather dramatically into the second major part of the concerto – it’s all in one movement lasting about twenty minutes with three parts if you like; the first part, then the cadenza, then the second part which is like a fast movement as it were, very rhythmic.

But there’s also Szymanowski’s use of folk material. At one point I’m playing in a sort of pentatonic scale that’s against a droning effect a bit like a bagpipe, and there’s lots of interesting different types of scales – almost Middle Eastern if you like – so that adds a real exotic flavour. Then it builds up to a tremendous climax where all the themes are brought back, including the opening theme of the piece, intermingled with all sorts of rhythmic ideas. He brings the whole together at the end into a very exciting and triumphant conclusion.

You can also still hear the Viennese influence that was more pronounced in Szymanowski’s earlier work. This is his Op 61 and a rather late piece.

Yes, and it was written for his dear friend the violinist Paweł Kochański who was unfortunately very unwell at the time Szymanowski was composing it.

It’s sad that Kochański died shortly after giving the work’s premiere in New York in 1933.

I remember reading that that led Szymanowski to feel ambivalent about the piece – he associated it with his friend’s death. So I wonder if, in some small way, that was why Szymanowski didn’t push it more and therefore it didn’t quite have the upbringing it should have had, as it were, bearing in mind the greatness of the work!

I believe Kochański had a hand in writing that cadenza – he worked very closely with Szymanowski on a number of his fiendishly difficult violin works!

Yes – I don’t know to what extent he would have influenced exactly the notes that were written for instance or the double stopping, but I would imagine that there must have been a huge amount of involvement from Kochański. I believe he may have stayed with Szymanowski while he was composing it.

It strikes me as a fascinating partnership between a wonderful instrumentalist and a composer. Are you aware of that when you play the piece?

Yes I think so, with this particular piece. There are some concerti where the violin is playing alongside the orchestra in certain places but in this piece you really are the protagonist right the way through. I’m calling to mind for instance Brahms’ Violin Concerto where he chooses to give the oboe the main theme for a very extended period in the second movement. There’s nothing like that here. There are a couple of very wild and marvellous tuttis – but even those are in short supply. It’s very much focused on the violin throughout.

I found a lovely quote from Simon Rattle who said ‘It has always amazed me why the violinists of the world do not play at least one of Szymanowski’s concertos.’

[Laughs]. Yes, I know Simon really loves Syzmanowski’s music! I do hope it comes more into the repertoire – I mean it’s not done very often full stop! You’d be hard-pressed to see anyone perform the piece and it’s just incredibly sad. I hope that in Cardiff, people will really get a flavour of what an amazing work it is, even if it’s very unfamiliar to them. But I think they’re a very musical audience, very open-minded! Even on a first hearing it’s just so exciting and there’s such energy to the work that I really hope they’re going to enjoy it.