When violinist Tasmin Little steps out in front of the BBC Proms audience one week into the season of concerts just unveiled, she will do so for the 20th time since her first appearance at the Royal Albert Hall in 1990. A Proms favourite, both for her dedication to the British music championed by the two-month-long festival and for her generous on-stage personality, on 25 July she will reach this landmark, one of only a handful of artists ever to do so, not with a crowd-pleasing Brahms or Bruch concerto, but with the relatively unknown violin concerto by E J Moeran.
This largely neglected English composer survived injuries sustained as a despatch rider in the First World War – the Proms this year partly mark the centenary of the war’s outbreak – and died in 1950. The violin concerto, a concerto for cello (he married a cellist), a single complete symphony, some much-loved church music and a host of stories about his hell-raising stays in Ireland with fellow composer Peter Warlock are pretty much all that most listeners hear of Moeran’s musical legacy.
“The concerto is a fabulous piece,” says Little. “It’s very liquid, very Irish and pastoral and the middle movement is the whizz-bang.” It is surely no coincidence that the piece should be chosen for the last Proms season of departing director and Radio 3 controller Roger Wright, a tireless advocate of British music.
Little’s skilful choice of repertoire dates from her first appearance at the Proms, in 1990. “I would consider that the start of my career. I had been performing from 1987, but it was blissful making my Proms debut with the Janacek [concerto] – something that virtually nobody knew. But it was very scary playing Janacek with Sir Charles Mackerras who was a Janacek expert and at the top of his career. We got on like a house on fire. He called a spade a spade and so do I.”
She was invited back for the next nine years’ Proms in succession. Britten, Elgar and Delius are among her favourite composers, and in 2001 she premiered the concerto by Inverness-born Stuart MacRae, bringing the composer, then in his twenties, to a much wider audience.
A thoroughly game performer, at 2012’s Wallace and Gromit Prom, she also gave the first performance of My Concerto in Ee, Lad, alongside Poochini, aka Gromit.
Her latest recording recalls another Proms performance: she is revisiting the Walton Violin Concerto, which she played there in 1993 and recorded a year later. The new interpretation, out next month, with conductor Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, promises to be a highlight of the musical year, and comes at a time of increasing interest in and respect for British 20th-century music stimulated by the Britten centenary last year, and encouraged by the Proms, which this year has a Walton strand.
The Walton Violin Concerto flowed into the gap in British music created by the death within a few months of each other in 1934 of the British composers-in-chief at that time: Elgar, Delius and Holst. “It is one of the greatest violin concertos ever written,” says Little. “It’s still a surprise to me that it’s never achieved the level of popularity of, say, the Elgar. Even the Britten wasn’t played much until about 10 years ago. Now it, and the Elgar, are played abroad too. But the Walton is ‘the poor cousin’. I can’t put my finger on why: it has all the ingredients – lyricism, tunes, panache, virtuosity, both in the violin and orchestral writing.”
The concerto was commissioned by Lithuanian-born virtuoso Jascha Heifetz, who for two years after its premiere in 1939 held the sole rights to its performance, this doing nothing to help it become more widely known. And although Heifetz expected it to display his phenomenal technique, Walton would not write a mere showpiece.
“One of the reasons I don’t think the Paganini concertos are great, is because there isn’t the dialogue between violin and concerto – the orchestra is just putting in oom-pah-pah,” says Little. “Walton [in constrast] uses the orchestra as another virtuoso instrument. And it has a triumphant ending that makes people want to burst into applause.
“It’s difficult, but not intrinsically more so that the Britten or Elgar. It requires a finesse of technique on the part of the conductor, and a real sense of leadership. The second movement is at the end of the scale for management abilities.” This middle movement – “the one you spend most rehearsal time on,” she says – is distinguished by its accompanied cadenzas, a real challenge, the violinist’s freewheeling solo explorations also grounded by orchestral interjections.“In the second movement you have to feel as though you are arching your eyebrow and putting your hand on your hip – it has to be tigerish. You can see that Heifetz has gone to Walton at one point and said: “Give me something faster – I want to show off here.”
Walton’s relatively small output is also a marker of his skill, she suggests. “In a composer, brevity is strength. There is not a spare second of music in the Violin Concerto. Nothing is repeated. There is no grabbing something from earlier on, popping it in to fill up time. He has so many colours, such fun with colour.”
Twenty years on, Little finds she has developed too. “I have a far wider range of colours in my palette. I feel more capricious, can make the juxtapositions more interesting.”
A hit looks to be on the cards, as her recording of the Moeran was last year. One website made that recording with the BBC Philharmonic under Sir Andrew Davies its classical CD of 2013; it was 14 weeks in the classical charts. But for now the Proms is a focal point: “It’s really English music-making and I don’t agree with those who say it is jingoistic to celebrate British music. My summer is not the same if I am not playing at the Proms.”
The Walton Violin Concerto is out on Chandos, 6 May. BBC Proms: Royal Albert Hall and other venues, 18 July to 13 Sept (bbc.co.uk/proms)