Delius is a composer who is often misunderstood, the English pastoralism of works like On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring hardly representative of either his cosmopolitan life or the breadth of his output. Tasmin Little has long been one of the composer’s most passionate advocates, and opened this recital with her regular duo partner Martin Roscoe with the earliest of Delius’ four violin sonatas. Written in 1890s Paris, when Delius enjoyed the company of such artists as Gauguin, Munch and the playwright Strindberg, the sonata inhabits the heady world of the salon, ravishingly Wagnerian harmonies accumulating to create a thoroughly delirious whole. Little’s enthusiasm proved infectious throughout, her breezy, joyous delivery ensuring that the music, despite its tendency towards excess, never overstayed its welcome.

Tasmin Little © Paul Mitchell
Tasmin Little
© Paul Mitchell

Two early works by Britten – a nod to his centenary – followed. Little made easy work of the often unwieldy writing in the Suite, Op. 6, a mostly sardonic send-up of the traditional suite of character pieces, but all too often Britten’s music felt like the product of facile wit rather than real ingenuity. The closing “Waltz” proved more effective, Little and Roscoe savouring every grotesque slide and lurching rhythm, whilst “Lullaby”, the work’s emotional heart, allowed them to explore a broader emotional palette. In the Holiday Diary for solo piano which opened the concert’s second half even Roscoe’s detailed and vivacious account couldn’t mask the work’s problems. The riotous sonorities of “Funfair” were dispatched with vim, though by the end the preponderance of white-note glissandi became rather tiring. “Night”, the final work in the set, was easily the most effective, an atmospheric stream of bleached, widely spaced chords accompanying the ghosts of themes from earlier in the set.

The mood of the duo’s final offering could not have been further removed from Britten’s youthful insouciance; Elgar’s knotty and uncompromising Violin Sonata is a work consumed with doubt. Written in less than pompous circumstances towards the end of the war, when Elgar’s music had ceased to be fashionable, the sonata exhibits little of the bombast of his earlier works, that quintessentially Elgarian marking “Nobilmente” being completely absent. After the Delius and Britten both musicians seemed to relish the opportunity this work gave them to dig deep emotionally, Little bringing a muscular weight to the tumultuous opening, flinging herself at the melody’s wide, searching intervals with great aplomb. Moments of tenderness and respite were savoured, too, intensifying further the movement’s unstable nature.

The pair brought poise and mystery to the opening of the second movement which, with its strange, fragmentary allusions to a dance, seemed strikingly similar to the world of the Britten suite. The expansive arc of the movement’s central section was brilliantly captured, Little finding the most tender and private of pianissimos with which to begin a perfectly judged build-up. The climax was devastating, whilst Roscoe’s sensitive interlude skilfully prepared for the return of the opening music, now made even stranger through Little’s use of a mute. Their account of the finale, if a little hurried, displayed substantial insight into its many shifting moods. The cathartic return of the haunting melody from the second movement was judged to perfection, and the subsequent emotional lift and breakthrough to the blazing E major of the sonata’s conclusion was both exhilarating and deeply felt.

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