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 Interview, Tasmin Little reflects on her career

Tasmin LittleIn January, violinist Tasmin Little announced her intention to retire from the concert-platform in 2020, thirty years into an immensely distinguished career which has yielded over forty recordings including many twentieth-century British rarities and an award-winning account of the Elgar Violin Concerto with Sir Andrew Davis on Chandos.

Shortly before she was crowned Personality of the Year at last night’s BBC Music Magazine Awards, Tasmin spoke to me about her motivation for stepping away from performance at this stage in her life, the changes she’s witnessed in the recording industry over the past three decades, and how she plans to spend her time after packing away her violin…

You announced your retirement from the concert platform in late January; does this also extend to the studio, or are there more recordings to come?

There are four more projects in the pipeline, two of which have already been recorded; one of those is at the final stages of production and will be released in the next couple of months, and another will follow around January next year. I also have two more lots of sessions in the studio – one will be a recital album, and one will be a final concerto disc. But once I actually down tools I am quite serious about releasing myself from the ball and chain of endless violin practice, and if I’m not practising then I certainly won’t be in a position to make a recording that anybody would want to listen to!

Will you carry on playing for pleasure, or take a complete sabbatical?

I’m definitely going to take a complete break and how long that break will last is very difficult to say, because one of the reasons (in fact the main reason) for retiring was that we all know violinists who carry on past their sell-by date, and I was very determined not to be one of them. There comes a tipping-point where you are still playing really well - probably the best you ever have - but the physical aspect of playing begins to slowly deteriorate, and I always said I would stop at the top of my game, which is where I believe I am right now. I know that I’ve got the experience and maturity to give really worthwhile musical performances, bringing together all the strands of everything that I’ve ever learnt from incredible conductors (some of whom are no longer with us) and long-term collaborators like Piers Lane, Martin Roscoe and John Lenehan.

I still love performing, but performing to this standard is more than a full-time job. It’s a 24/7 total lifestyle, which I’ve enjoyed and bought into for over thirty years, but it doesn’t leave very much room for anything else in one’s life, and now that I’m in my early fifties I really feel that I would like to try some other things while I’ve got the energy and physical ability to do them!

I might continue to teach and give workshops and masterclasses, but there are things outside music that I would like to do. I’m also very interested in broadcasting and presenting, so that’s one way that I can use all this experience and bring it into the public domain. It would be very sad to go through the rest of my life with sixty violin concertos and goodness knows how many sonatas and pieces all locked inside me; I want to give that knowledge away, and broadcasting and teaching strike me as great opportunities to do that without having to be glued to a violin.

Was retiring at this point always part of your game-plan?

It was always a question of ‘When’ and not ‘If’. I’ll be 55 next year, and I always knew I would stop before I was 60. 2020 is also a turning point in terms of my personal life, because both of my children will be finishing school and heading to university, so there’s a slight sense of ‘What now?'. And next year is also the thirtieth anniversary of both my debut at the Proms and the release of my first recording; those two things are how I felt my career properly began. I’d actually been working since 1987, but I hardly had what one would call an exciting career! But that all changed in 1990 with those two very high-profile things happening to critical acclaim. I’ve been so fortunate that I’ve actually had the kind of career that I hoped that I would have when I was young; I always knew that it would be jolly hard work, but it’s also been more rewarding than I can possibly put into words.

What are your non-musical plans for the immediate future?

I would like to finally take up some hobbies! I’m really looking forward to using both my brain and body in different ways: I’m quite good with my hands, so I want to explore that, and I’d also like to brush up my languages and possibly learn a new one. I’m very interested in getting more involved in my local community in some sort of charitable way, and generally just building a more rounded life than time-constraints have allowed me to have during my career.

What major changes have you seen in the classical recording industry over the past thirty years?

It’s altered hugely, of course. When I made my first recording in 1989 I asked EMI whether they were going to bring out the disc on vinyl, because black discs were being phased out in favour of these new exciting CDs; cassette-tapes were still available, so my first recording was released on cassette and on CD. So that move away from vinyl was the first thing that changed, and then cassettes began to be phased out too. All sorts of things were gathering momentum, and as far as the technical aspect of sound was concerned it was a very exciting time - the recorded sound started to become much more truthful, and then surround-sound came into the picture too…

From a marketing point of view, too, things were vastly different. I started out in the days when you had a pretty picture of the countryside on a CD or cassette - it was very rare to have it artist-led, with a photo of them on the front cover. The other thing about marketing and image was that the industry in general was still a little fusty: I remember doing a concert having excitedly bought myself a strapless evening-gown, and it was commented on because the only other person who wore strapless gowns back then was Anne-Sophie Mutter! The dress-code was pretty prudish, I suppose, so again that whole element of marketing began to become important to record companies.

And the final major change concerns repertoire, which was a lot less niche than it has become; when I was discussing that first recording for EMI, it simply went without saying that as a violinist making your first recording you would record the Bruch and the Mendelssohn concertos. I said that I’d rather not do that pairing if they didn’t mind, and EMI were marvellous and asked what I would really like to do; I said ‘I’d quite like to do the Dvořák, because it’s not done so often - but I’ve played it quite a lot, and I think I could make rather a good recording’. So Bruch and Dvořák it was! Exploring different repertoire became something of a hallmark of my career, because that next thing that I recorded was Delius, followed by George Lloyd and all sorts of things that people weren’t really recording in those days. Nowadays, though, it’s actually rather difficult to get a record company to take standard repertoire – they’re very interested in pieces that haven’t been done, and now there’s a whole new movement towards female composers. And of course now people are buying CDs less and less; it’s much more about downloads and people are moving towards a more bespoke way of listening to music. Personally, I still love CDs – I don’t own an iPod, or even a set of headphones! With classical and non-classical music alike, I vastly prefer to put something on a sound-system and listen to it properly.

You mentioned inspirational conductors earlier – can I pin you down to two or three names?

Vernon Handley (who everyone called Tod) and Richard Hickox are the two that immediately spring to mind, because they were influential to me in my earliest days; my very first recording was with Tod, and my next was with Charles Mackerras, who was also a joy to work with. Tod and Richard were both wonderful exponents of British music, but their talents didn’t end there. I remember countless magical performances with Richard, and I miss him to this day – he was a lovely person as well as an amazing recording artist who knew exactly how to make records.

Is there any repertoire that you regret not having recorded?

I’m quite sad that I won’t have recorded the Beethoven concerto; it’s a work that I completely adore, and it nearly happened on a couple of occasions but never quite came off. But I’m really glad that I’m going to have an opportunity to play it again before I finish: I’ll be playing the Beethoven and the Brahms a few times this year, as well as the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante. So my bucket-list is definitely happening, and it’s happening in the loveliest way – I’m going to play the repertoire I love with people that I’ve enjoyed working with over the years, in places where I’ve really enjoyed being, and with orchestras that I’ve known for a long time. I’m incredibly happy about the next eighteen months – it’s going to be tinged with nostalgia as well, but I’m so looking forward to just giving all of these performances my very best shot.

Tasmin selects some personal highlights from her discography here.

You can view details of her farewell concert-schedule here.