Tasmin Little: String-driven thing

The violinist Tasmin Little is about to tackle one of the toughest works in the repertoire, under the daunting gaze of Simon Rattle and the Promenaders. Is she fretting? Tim Stein finds out

When Tasmin Little steps out into the cavernous arena of the Royal Albert Hall on Sunday night, it will be with more than a degree of trepidation. "There will be a real struggle on my hands," says the endearing young British violinist with a giggle, reflecting on her upcoming performance of the Ligeti Violin Concerto, in which she will be joined by Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic.

But it's not her esteemed musical partners that are the cause for concern, nor the 1708 "Regent" Stradivarius on which she will play. Although she has more than 50 concertos in her musical armoury, the Ligeti is by far the hardest piece she has had to learn. "It's a huge work, on a truly massive scale," says Little with characteristic ebullience, and yet a level-headedness that marks her out as one of the most popular violinists on the world circuit.

"The sheer volume of notes that you have to get under your fingers is really mind-blowing. In all the five movements there's an abundance of awkward moments, with devilishly tricky rhythmic patterns and changing time signatures. Name the difficulties and they are there," she says breathlessly, as if describing the work's demands is as taxing as performing it live.

"The first movement alone consists of nine pages of solid, rapid semiquavers. And it lasts only four minutes! Where Paganini may have written brilliant passagework with only one note to play at a time, Ligeti makes you play hundreds with double- and triple-stopping thrown in for good measure. Not only do your fingers have to move very fast, but your brain has to be able to split itself into about three completely different sections. In the second movement, for example, there's one really beautiful passage where I'm playing three beats per bar, while the orchestra is playing in four. You really shouldn't attempt to play this piece if you don't have a very strong sense of pulse."

As a keen champion of new works - Little has given several world premieres of concertos by Dominic Muldowney, Robert Saxton and, most recently, Stuart MacRae, whose concerto she played at the Proms in 2001 - how difficult has it been to learn a work of such proportions?

"It took a period of three months, I suppose," she says, "though I was very busy playing other things as well." She broke the back of it while on a two-week tour in Israel. "I literally got up in the morning, drank a very strong cup of coffee and then worked for a solid three hours. Then I would have lunch, drink another coffee, practise again for a further three hours, and then take a nap before going off to play the Barber Violin Concerto in the evening."

The 38-year-old violinist certainly has stamina and determination, so it comes as no surprise to learn that she takes her two toddlers (Chloe, nearly three, and Ashley, one) on her trips abroad. "They enjoyed Warsaw and Vienna, but I decided not to take them to Hong Kong - the Sars virus was too much of a concern."

Ever since the age of seven, Little has always wanted to play the violin, or so it seems. "I literally announced one day that I wanted to be a great violinist." And so, after the usual round of recorder (she taught herself to read the treble clef after a lengthy period of chickenpox) and piano lessons, Little's mum asked the primary school's violin teacher if she could have lessons. Initially the school wanted her to start a year later, but after they discovered that she had perfect pitch, they decided to let her start playing straight away.

Has music always been in her immediate family? "No, not at all. And we certainly don't come from a long line of distinguished musicians, either. If anything, I suppose my performing ability comes from my father, the actor George Little. And my mum, who's very sociable, has a very good voice."

Little seems to have started very early. At six months, she was making musical cooing sounds from her cot. "I was most probably trying to sing songs from the shows Dad was performing in when he returned home." What shows? "Probably from musicals like Oliver!," Little laughs. She certainly remembers listening to music ("a lot of classical") as a young child, and there was always something being played in the house. Musical influences abound, but perhaps one of her "most inspirational" memories was of hearing Pinchas Zukerman playing Beethoven's Violin Concerto at the Proms when she was 18. "I was almost in heaven when I heard that performance of that piece," she says. "And it wasn't just the piece. It's a bit like the effect of a good teacher. A good teacher will communicate something to you that will immediately make sense, and everything about Zukerman's playing put things into context for me, in a highly musical way."

After 10 years at the Yehudi Menuhin School, where she studied with Pauline Scott ("the assistant to the great Russian violinist and teacher Ivan Galamian"), Little continued her studies at the Guildhall School of Music in London (gaining not only her performance diploma but winning a gold medal, too), before completing her formal training ("Privately, for about seven months") with Lorand Fenyves in Canada. Since then, and after a successful Prom in 1990, when she played the Janacek Violin Concerto, her feet have hardly touched the ground. She now performs extensively (and exhaustively) with virtually every major orchestra and conductor.

Though much of Little's time is taken up playing vast chunks of the violin repertoire - everything from Bruch to Sibelius and Brahms to Lalo - she is also a committed chamber musician, forming regular and rewarding partnerships with the likes of Martin Roscoe, Piers Lane, Wayne Marshall and John Lenehan. Little is especially enthusiastic about her latest release with Lenehan, Tchaikovskiana, on the Classics For Pleasure label. "I was delighted when CFP invited me to make a recording to celebrate the recent relaunch of the label," Little has said. Having often performed a work of their own making derived from themes from Swan Lake ("the piece kept changing from performance to performance"), the two musicians decided that they should write something as a kind of homage to Tchaikovsky's ballet. "Even now we're not sure it is finished, as it may very well change further over future performances... But we just hope that Tchaikovsky would approve."

Approval by a composer is one thing, but - like all great musicians - Little also wants to "get as close as possible to the written score, whatever I am playing. I want to try and acknowledge that there is something of my personality in there also. You can be as robotic as you like, and just aim to recreate exactly what is on the printed music. Or you can take it a stage further and say, 'I think the reason he wrote this is because of such and such...' At least, this is my interpretation of it. As an interpreter, I would like to think that a composer would trust in me enough to allow me a small area of artistic licence. Don't misunderstand me; I'm not trying to change things at all. But there are times when you think, 'This is the effect I really want,' and that the composer would have wanted it too."

She's certainly made her mark with Delius ("Tasmin Little's Delian instincts are formidable'', Gramophone wrote) and Finzi (her premiere recording of his Violin Concerto received superlative reviews), and it looks as if she will be making her mark with the Ligeti too. So has she had much feedback from the famously fastidious Hungarian composer, who once refused to shake hands with a conductor after finding fault with a performance? "Ligeti hasn't heard me play personally, but his assistant came on one occasion and told me that he would have been very happy," she says, sounding somewhat relieved.

Whatever the outcome of the Ligeti, Little is "thrilled to bits" to be playing with "Simon" (he has invited her to play the piece at the Salzburg Festival this year) and the Berliners. "It's a fantastic opportunity, a fantastic collaboration. And Simon is just so incredibly versatile. You never have to worry about a thing with him. He's so technically fluid that the whole experience is one of great joy and pure music-making."

Tasmin Little plays Ligeti's Violin Concerto with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic at the BBC Proms on Sunday 31 August (020-7589 8212). Her CD, 'Tchaikovskiana', is released in September on EMI Classics For Pleasure