My mother loved a party, yet she had a rule – never stay to the bitter end; always leave when the party is at its height. That way, she would say, you will have no regrets and only happy memories. Tasmin Little, one of Britain’s best-loved violinists, must share that same philosophy. She is ending her performing career while still at the top of her game. Not for her a slow decline. She wants to go out with her head held high, however long her fans would wish the party would go on.

Tasmin Little
© Southbank Centre/BBC | Tom Howard

Little had planned to quit in August, but Covid-19 threw all her concert plans into disarray. Instead, she decided to carry on until the end of the year, and last night took a significant step towards the exit, bidding farewell to London’s Southbank Centre (where she had first appeared at the age of nine) and giving, quite possibly, her last radio broadcast.

How cruel that such a great artist should say goodbye amid the pandemic and all its restrictions. In normal times you could imagine her on stage at a packed Royal Festival Hall, playing a significant concerto with a major symphony orchestra in a flower-strewn gala. Instead, barely 30 people (and the radio audience) heard her chose a programme of her chamber favourites, joined by four of her closest keyboard associates, Piers Lane, Martin Roscoe, Andrey Gugnin and John Lenehan.

Female composers figured largely throughout, with only Brahms and Coleridge-Taylor making any male input. Brahms topped and tailed the first half, his Scherzo from the FAE Sonata opening the evening in bold, declamatory style, with Lane at the piano. (F-A-E is the musical figure each used by Schumann, Dietrich and Brahms when they collaborated on the piece in 1853.)

Tasmin Little and John Lenehan
© Southbank Centre/BBC | Tom Howard

Martin Roscoe joined Little for Clara Schumann’s Three Romances, Op 22, pieces full of wistful cantabile melodies, with the first offering a glorious opportunity for Little to demonstrate the rich sonority of her instrument’s lower register. Then came a moment of pure magic and pathos. Lili Boulanger was just 24 when the flu pandemic of 1918 claimed her life. What promise was snatched away. Her Nocturne of 1911, written when she was 17, is a thing of exquisite beauty, that takes flight, soaring ever-upwards in a passionate exultation, beautifully captured by Little and Lane.

Brahms’ Violin Sonata no. 3 in D minor Op.108 provided the deeply serious core of the evening, with Russian pianist Andrey Gugnin startling us with his emphatic, mesmerising playing. The intensity of his connection with Little is profound: it’s a tragedy to think that we may never hear them together again. There were many great moments, but the closing bars of the first movement were a particular wonder, both players coming to rest as one in a beautifully-judged gesture of total unanimity.

Little was resplendent in a full-length, silver sequinned dress for the first half of the evening, but changed into slinky blue satin for the close, where the mood matched her wardrobe. She stamped her way through Roxanna Panufnik’s Hora Bessarabia for solo violin, written for Little in 2016, a bravura exploration of Romanian and Bulgarian folk influences and gypsy rhythms.

Martin Roscoe, Piers Lane, Tasmin Little, John Lenehan and Andrey Gugnin
© Southbank Centre/BBC | Tom Howard

She veered towards smaltz with Coleridge-Taylor’s waltzing Demande et réponse, an arrangement of a movement from his 1910 Petite Suite for Orchestra, before wooing us with Amy Beach’s Romance Op.23 from 1893, which served as a prelude to Beach’s mighty Violin Sonata in A minor Op.34, with its serene opening, skittering Scherzo, restless Largo and impassioned Allegro finale. Here, with John Lenehan at the piano, Little demonstrated just why she will be so missed on the concert platform. A fine sense of line, immaculate phrasing, a broad, singing tone, total technical assurance and an innate grasp of the narrative combined to impelled us to listen anew to a composer she has long championed.

And then, with a brief encore (her own arrangement of Danny Boy) she was gone. No large ovation, no flowers, just a bow, a wave and – as always – that beaming smile. She will be sorely missed, but lucky the students who will study with her in the future. They couldn’t have a more inspiring teacher.