Tasmin Little interview: the British violinist on bowing out gracefully

Little has decided to retire next summer, at only 55: ‘I never thought of myself playing until the day I dropped dead!’

Hugh Canning

Just a month ago, the British violinist Tasmin Little took the musical world by surprise by announcing her retirement next summer: she will still be only 55, surely the prime of any performing musician. She has been something of a household name, perhaps not the most famous British violinist, but certainly the most widely loved, as she has toured the length of the land for more than 30 years, giving concerts with all of the orchestras in the regions, as well as in London. She has been sought-after internationally for at least the past 25 years. Why is she giving it all up?

“With a big decision like this, it’s hard to pinpoint a single reason, but from the start of my career I always said I would stop before my playing went downhill. I always thought it would be a question of ‘when’ and not ‘if’. I never thought of myself playing until the day I dropped dead!”

It’s a brave decision to make such a life change when you are still in great demand and at the top of your game. Her Wigmore Hall recital in January was a heartwarming occasion, juxtaposing a Schubert sonatina with a Brahms sonata, then following with Brahms’s Scherzo from the composite sonata he wrote with Schumann and Dietrich, and Schubert’s great C major Fantasy.

“I love the violin so much that the thought of playing it at less than my best is really painful. For years, I’ve told my family and friends, ‘If you think it’s starting to happen, for goodness sake tell me!’”

She says next summer she will come to a crossroads in her life. “My career began properly in 1990 [the date of her Proms debut with Janacek’s rare, brief concerto, and of her first recordings for EMI], and I am finishing in 2020, so there’s a nice symmetry. On a personal level, both of my children will be leaving home for university. That’s a big change.

“The all-consuming nature of playing — and, if you are an instrumentalist, the endless practice — takes its toll, and I have been practising nonstop for 46 years. I take small holidays every year, but basically it’s a ball and chain to which you are tethered. And you become more tethered the better you play and the higher the expectations.”

Although Little dates the launch of her career from that 1990 Prom, she had already started as a soloist with the Hallé in 1988; and even before that, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra spotted her talent at the Guildhall School of Music and engaged her for concerts with conductors such as Vladimir Ashkenazy and Kurt Masur.

“The Proms became a big feature of my life, and it’s still my favourite festival. After my 1990 debut, I made 10 consecutive appearances, including two Last Nights — one at the Royal Albert Hall, the other in Hyde Park — in 1995 and 1998.” Her first CD, released in 1990, was a then rare coupling of Bruch’s and Dvorak’s concertos on the EMI budget label Classics for Pleasure. It became a bestseller, so much so that she had a clock made out of one of the discs, which now adorns the living room of her home in west London.

Another reason for wanting to make a final bow is the constant pressure to come up with new programmes and different ways of presenting music. “You constantly have to think of new ideas, new repertoire. You can’t stand still. All through my career, I have been motivated by innovation. In the early days, I made a feature of unusual repertoire, starting with neglected Delius, and became known as the Delius girl, but I have long championed composers both British and international, and recorded a lot of rare pieces.”

It comes as a surprise that she hasn’t recorded the Mendelssohn, Beethoven or Tchaikovsky concertos commercially — they’re three of the violinist’s warhorses — though she has played them many times in concert. Her repertoire runs to an astonishing 70 concertos, including lots of British works: Elgar, Walton, Delius and Britten, but rarer pieces, too. She was one of the first to play and record Arvo Pärt’s violin music, which acquired cult status after she made an album for EMI’s Eminence label.

“Quite early on, I started to talk to the audience, introducing my recital programmes, when that was not necessarily the done thing. I remember one promoter saying to me, ‘Now, dear, you’re not going to speak, are you?’ But people actually like it, and come up to me after concerts to thank me.”

Her latest recital disc showcases female composers: Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth and the American Amy Beach. “The Beach sonata is a fantastic piece that I really think will become part of the repertoire. There are two ‘encores’, shorter pieces by Beach — the Romanze, probably her best-known piece for violin, and Invocation. It’s lovely.”

Little has a few more discs planned: two concerto records, one already recorded for Chandos, her main label since 2010, and another in preparation, which she can’t talk about “because I don’t want to jinx it”.

So what are her plans? “Ten days ago, I threw a load of balls up in the air to reshape my life. People were incredulous and said, ‘But you’re still playing so well...’ That’s the point, really. I want to go when I’m on top. I’m still excited by walking on stage, but I don’t think many people are aware how 24/7 this life is.”

She rattles off a bewildering itinerary of events: concerts in Birmingham, stopping off in York to play Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy in Glasgow, returning by car to York for masterclasses, coming down to London for a gig at the Ealing Festival and a live appearance on Radio 3’s In Tune.

“That’s been my life for the past 30 years, and this is the way I want to close this chapter, not with a hint or prospect of any decline. Practising for four hours a day is the professional musician’s mantra, and that’s what I will be releasing myself from. I can take up a hobby, go to the cinema, theatre, opera. I haven’t done that in years.”

For most of that time, she has been a single mother to her daughter and son, taking them on tour when they were little. Now she wants to spend some quality time with them as they leave the nest. And who can blame her?