Tasmin Little records the Elgar Violin
- an interview with Nick Barnard
major release of a long-awaited recording from one of Britain’s
best-loved and finest violinists imminent, Tasmin Little very
kindly found an hour in her busy schedule to talk about this important
new disc … and other things
Nick Barnard [NB]:
In researching this interview it amazed
me to realise that it is now some twenty-one years since your
Tasmin Little [TL]:
Yes, absolutely which was the Bruch
and the Dvorák for EMI. I recorded it in 1989 and it was released
in 1990, the same year I made my debut at the Proms. So 1990 is
probably the year that I consider that my career began. The Prom
was the Janácek concerto – it had only recently been discovered
and was a Proms premiere. Because it was a curiosity and my debut
I got an enormous amount of publicity which was wonderful. That
coupled with the release of the Bruch and Dvorák disc which got
tremendous reviews … it really set me on the right path as it
were. After which the recordings came in fairly thick and fast
including the Delius Violin Concerto and Double Concerto.
But before this new disc of the Elgar concerto there
has been a gap of about seven years since your last concerto disc
– the Moszkowski?
That’s right, with the Karlowicz. Since then I began
my naked violin project and also released the follow-up CD Partners
in time. I had been wanting to record the Elgar for many many
years and had had in fact many offers to do it. Quite a few early
on when I was making my way. I really felt it wasn’t the right
timing; the Elgar for me was a piece I needed to live with and
grow into. Not that my performances weren’t valid then, I’m sure
they were very fine but I think they would have been ‘young Tasmin’
kind of performances. Now I’ve had so much experience of playing
that piece – 20 years, more actually, and worked with so many
tremendous conductors and also lived since then! I do feel it
is a piece that requires you to have the sense of occasion, of
wonder and awe for this monumental work as well as quite an experienced
head on your shoulders. Not just with regard to playing the piece
but also to life. He was not a young man when he wrote the violin
concerto – it’s a piece of someone who had also lived so I feel
you need to be able to associate with some of that.
Was it a work you studied at the Menuhin School or
the Guildhall School of Music?
No it was after I came back from private studies in
Canada, the RPO asked me to play it with Yan Pascal Tortelier.
They gave me quite a lot of notice which was jolly good because
I certainly needed it – I think I had about six months which at
that point in time I hardly had anything else to do and it was
one of the first things that I did starting out as a fully-fledged
I was surprised to realise that it was the first time
Chandos have recorded it as well.
It is quite a surprising thing isn’t it. Perhaps they
felt much as I did that the perfect set of circumstances had to
come together in order to make the recording which was certainly
how I felt. I’m incredibly glad that I listened to my instinct
to wait to make the recording that I believe I have made and the
one that I really am sure I will listen to in the years to come
and be incredibly proud of.
The Elgar seems to have had a recent burst of recording
popularity. What is it in Elgar that is so currently appealing
to a crop of young non-British violinists?
When I was growing up the Elgar was not particularly
well known. Then there was the ‘batch’ of Zuckerman, Perlman and
the like. That was the era that set the seal on the popularity
of the concerto because it had been relatively neglected up until
that point. Perhaps the current group of recordings comes from
the generation of violinists who have grown up after that group
of recordings and now feel ready to record the work.
One of your other great loves is Delius; why is it
do you think that his music resolutely refuses to enter the mainstream
repertoire or indeed be promoted by many players?
I’m sure there are two aspects which are perhaps joined.
The one is that there is not an enormous call for it therefore
orchestras and soloists are reluctant to spend time learning it
but then it’s a case of the chicken and the egg where if the works
are not programmed how will audiences get to the stage where they
know they like it. Another reason is because as far as a soloist
is concerned you have to be a particular kind of temperament -
to not mind not having the ‘whizz-bang’ ending. Because, almost
without exception, the major works of Delius end quietly and that’s
not the circumstance that’s going to elicit rapturous applause.
If you are looking to create a sensation Delius’ music is not
going to provide that. Its much easier to turn to concertos that
are obviously difficult where people will feel that you worked
very hard, you did an amazing job and they’ll reward you with
lots of applause. The Delius [concerto] is incredibly hard and
yet it doesn’t sound
hard. For some people that’s not going
to be any good. A lot of soloists do like to feel that the audience
is aware of the difficulty and therefore be impressed by that.
We have 2012 coming up [the 150th
anniversary of his
birth] and I’m really hoping there will be an opportunity for
people to experience a wider range of Delius’ music.
I read on your website that you feel performing live
has the highest priority with recording slightly lower down the
list. But if it weren’t
for your recordings of the Delius
and Rubbra concertos to name but two we as willing concert goers
would not have had the chance to hear the music let alone hear
you playing them.
Recordings are extremely important to me. I plan and
hope to continue making recordings. But at the end of the day
I really think there needs to be a reason to record something
and it goes back to what I was saying earlier abut the right circumstances;
the right team, the right record company, the right repertoire
all have to come together. I don’t believe in making a recording
because somebody says “I’ve got a free date here, we could put
that together pretty quickly”. That is so far from my ethos and
so that was probably why I had a little bit of a gap as far as
concerto recordings were concerned. There are too many recordings
out there now; if I’m going to make my version its got to be the
best version that I can make. Which is why I feel so happy about
the Elgar Concerto. Not only do I feel that I was absolutely at
the top of my game but everybody else was too. I’m sure that that
makes itself felt – I hope it does. I feel that there is so much
spontaneity, so much excitement, so much commitment on this recording
and that’s what I want – its absolutely imperative to me
In the recording environment the demands seems to be
not for the danger, risk or spontaneity of live performance but
instead a kind of superhuman perfection.
Yes, and that is a huge danger in making a recording.
Obviously you don’t want to have mistakes glaring out at you but
you can go completely the other way and get so ridiculously worried
abut every single note. Whereas in fact it is the sweep of the
music, the performance itself that will make people come along.
Which is one of the reasons I always liked to work in large takes.
To play complete movements of the piece and to really get that
sense of performance before starting the nit-picking. Of course
when you hear your first edit when everything is put together
I think it is incredibly important to let yourself be carried
away by the music. After that you can listen again to see if there
is anything that jumps out as not being what I wanted. On the
Elgar recording I had extraordinarily few comments. On a piece
that lasts fifty minutes I had ten comments to make. You hear
sometimes of artists who come back with five hundred ‘corrections’
– sometimes of just one tiny note. I will say my Elgar is not
completely perfect but I think it can’t be better than it
is. Because if there is one note that might have just been a tiny
bit sharp or a tiny bit flat I’m prepared to let that go in the
vast sweep of the atmosphere that I believe I was able to create
alongside Andrew Davis and the orchestra. For me its much more
about ‘is the shape of that phrase exactly what I hoped to create’
and I can really put my hand on my heart and say that on this
recording the shape of the phrases, the colour of my sound, the
atmosphere and the sweep of the piece is exactly what I wanted.
Which violin did you use on the recording? [Tasmin
plays a 1757 Guadagnini violin
has, on loan from the Royal
Academy of Music
, the 1708 "Regent" Stradivarius
TL: The Guadagnini. It’s the Strad I often use in performance
because the nature of concertos in big venues is that that suits
the Strad which has the awesome carrying power my Guadagnini doesn’t
have. What the Guadagnini does have is a superb ability to shine
in recordings because it has so many colours available and a really
velvet sound that comes over superbly on disc. Most of the concerto
recordings have used the Guadagnini although I used the Strad
on the Moszkowski/
Karlowicz disc. On the ‘Naked Violin’
and ‘Partners in Time’ recordings you have the opportunity to
Obviously the – awful phrase – ‘Unique Selling Point’
of your Elgar is the Marie Hall Cadenza. How genuinely valid do
feel this is?
I think that its completely valid in terms of an historical
document . I probably wouldn’t think of replacing the actual cadenza
with that version of it but what I think it does provide people
with is the opportunity first of all to hear how effectively Elgar
brought the harp into a piece that hasn’t got a harp. I don’t
think it suddenly sounds like another world at all. From the point
of view of just adding an extra colour to the atmosphere that’s
created by the thrummed strings I do think its interesting to
hear it. I really love the way it becomes a more glowingly romantic
version of the cadenza.
Doesn’t the harp sentimentalise the gentle reflective
nostalgia of the original?
It does sentimentalise it and I agree that that’s why
I don’t think it would be appropriate to replace the existing
cadenza in a normal performance. But I do like it, I really do.
I love the different colour and its interesting to hear it that
way in exactly the same way it was interesting to hear the Sibelius
Violin Concerto in its original form. I wouldn’t dream of playing
the Sibelius that way but to hear the original you can understand
why it was that he then decided to revise but it is fascinating
to hear what he thought was ‘right’ at that time. I think there
will be plenty of people who will be enthralled to hear how Elgar
solved what was a very real problem in the early days of recording.
It is a pragmatic approach but there is one bit where I think
he gets rather carried away and enjoys having his harp there;
there is quite a ‘declaration’ from me and although it is quite
unnecessary to have anything else at that point he decides to
emphasise my declaration with a harp chord.
How important or significant to
Elgar or listeners
and performers is a comprehension of the dedication of the concerto
“herein lies enshrined the soul of *****”
It helps but is not absolutely essential. If somebody
understands music they just understand it without necessarily
knowing what it is that has caused the feeling. When I first heard
the Elgar performed live when I was about 19 or 20 I was a poor
student. So I didn’t have a programme so I did not know anything
at all about the extraordinary placing of the cadenza or the idea
of the soul enshrined. But I absolutely knew that there was a
journey there, a spiritual searching and I had an innate understanding
of the work without knowing exactly why it was written as it was.
When playing this piece do you have a non-musical narrative
that you are following?
It’s a curious thing; when I was first preparing the
Delius Concerto I did have a kind of narrative going on. I do
that less and less now but instead I think more and more now in
terms of colours and characters. So, I can often find an adjective
that will describe what I am aiming to do with one particular
passage of a work. So whether it is ‘restless’ or ‘turbulent’
or ‘peaceful’, ‘joyous’ I can very often sum it up like that but
I won’t create a storyline.
So who do you think the ***** are?
I think it must be Alice Stewart-Wortley. He was so
blocked trying to write this piece and it was her urging him on.
He writes things in letters “this is your
windflower theme is coming on well”. We know that the soul is
a feminine one. Elgar was so fond of his enigmas. Perhaps he was
a good businessman too and he knew it would keep everyone talking
a hundred later – and it has!
Do British audiences have the opportunity to hear you
playing the Elgar live in the near future?
Yes, but I’m not allowed to say! All of my concerts
are listed on my website [http://www.tasminlittle.org.uk/pages/02_pages/02_set_concerts]
and as soon as I can the information will be there.
Are there any plans for any more recordings?
I have just recorded something else for Chandos that
is rather wonderful and major and there are plans for more next
year but at the moment the details of exactly what will have to
stay hush-hush. It is scheduled for a 2011 release with a very
similar creative team to the Elgar.
If I was able to wave a magic wand and make any project
possible what would you like to do?
Oh my goodness,
that’s very hard because
the nice thing is there’s always lots more to do so pinning myself
down to one is tricky. I’d love to play the Brahms in the Carnegie
Hall with Simon Rattle and either the New York Phil or the Berlin
Phil. I have played in the Carnegie Hall with Simon and it was
an absolute highlight – I played the Ligeti and I have done the
Brahms with Simon and that was another highlight of my career
so to put the Brahms in the Carnegie Hall with Simon would be
Is there a particular piece that you feel cries out
for rehabilitation that you feel promoters won’t risk programming?
There’s quite a few actually, I still think that even
the Walton concerto doesn’t get quite the attention that it should.
The Karlowicz which I recorded is a superb piece and definitely
should be played more often. I’ve just been playing the Howard
Sonata which is absolutely divine.
I saw on your website that you named Ida Haendel as
one of your violin heroes – why?
first of all because she was someone who was playing
all sorts of repertoire – a lot of it British – when no-one else
was. Ida Haendel was playing the Britten Violin Concerto when
no-one else did. She also played the Elgar, Walton and Delius.
I love the fact that she was an incredibly strong woman. So as
a strong passionate characterful woman violinist she was a great
role model for me and someone I aspired to being like. And I loved
her ability to hold a long musical line. For example nobody plays
the second movement of the Sibelius concerto like Ida Haendel
– this is the recording [Haendel/Berglund/Bournemouth SO] that
turned me onto the Sibelius. No-one else had managed to make it
work for me emotionally before her – and this was when I was very
One last question -
of your back catalogue what
recording are you proudest of?
That’s a very good question. When
you make a
recording it’s a snap-shot in time of how you were then and so
quite often when I listen – which I don’t with terrible regularity
– to recordings I have made I often feel oh gosh yes wasn’t I
young then but I would play it very differently now. I think my
Sibelius concerto is still very good indeed as is my Bruch Scottish
Fantasy and all the Delius Sonatas which I think is a record I
think I will always listen to and be very proud of.