A Conversation with Tasmin Waley-Cohen

Described by the Guardian as a performer of “fearless intensity”,  the recipient of 2016-2017 ECHO Rising Stars Awards Tamsin Waley-Cohen joined by pianist Huw Watkins released a new CD exploring folk-inspired Bohemia from before the First World War. It features works by Antonin Dvořák, Josef Suk and Leoš Janáček. Primephonic’s Rina Sitorus had a chance to talk to Tamsin about it.

Congratulations on your newest recording, Bohemia. What is the idea behind it?

Thank you very much. I’ve always really loved the music of Antonin Dvořák, and Leoš Janáček. In fact some of my earliest memories of playing chamber music was playing Dvořák quartet. The idea actually sits at the beginning of a series of albums I’ve done over the past few years, which between them, tell the story of the twentieth century. I wanted to do something which comes before the 1917 album. Although the Janáček is the latest work on this album, written right before the outbreak of the first World War, I wanted to do an album which in a way encapsulated the incredibly cultured world of central Europe, which was completely lost after the first World War.

How would you describe your collaboration with Huw Watkins?

Huw and I have been working together for many years. I premiered his Concertino when I was 15. He is my long time partner in violin and piano recitals and chamber music. We’ve recorded quite a lot together so it was only natural that we recorded Bohemia together. Actually it was his idea to include the Suk pieces. They fit perfectly. The works are very beautiful but quite strange and unexpected. There’s something about them which is a bit uncomfortable. They fit very well with the idea of a world that is disappearing.

What are the highlights of Bohemia that people may not yet be so familiar with?

Well, I think in fact the Dvořák sonata is almost never played, it is quite early, from before he had achieved his great fame. It has this almost fresh naivety about it and I think it’s very charming. Many people may not know that. And the works from Suk are a gems which are not played at all these days, but they were very popular 50 years ago. Another highlight could be the four romantic pieces by Dvořák which he wrote later on when he went back to his country house in Bohemia. He was writing these melodies inspired by the music of the countryside.

Are you happy with how the recording turned out?

As a musician you’re always learning and improving. It doesn’t mean that something I did last year was not good, but I might do it differently.The thing with recordings is that they are snapshots of a few days. You put your heart and soul in these few days, you do your best in a recording. Of course later there will be things which I want to change or do differently, but I do feel that this is a very good representation of the works. I absolutely stand by what we did. And since recordings will be there forever, I’ll always make sure that I know from every note what I want and why I want it that way. And it comes from a lot of thoughts, analysis and reflections, so nothing is happening by chance.

I’m also very happy to work with producer Nick Parker and engineer Mike Hatch. They understood what we wanted, something tactile and intimate to go for the warmness of Janáček for example and tenderness for other moments.

How do you prepare a recording?

It is very very important to have a very good preparation. A lot of practise and rehearsals. For me it is just as important to perform the pieces on stage and sort of living that experience. I think you should perform it at least five times, but ideally more. And remember to record yourself before you go into the recording,  so you are producing what you’re hoping for in your mind’s ears.

Do you still get nervous?

Yes of course. It is a different nervous feeling between recording and stage performance. You are recording for three days, but every take is different. It’s more about this adrenaline that goes through you in these whole three days. Stage performance is about adrenaline rush for a shorter time. For me it’s a positive thing. It should lift up the performance and bring extra energy to the stage. I don’t see nerves as a negative thing. Of course you need to know how to relate to it and manage it.

Could you tell me about your next projects?

My next recording plans are actually with my quartet, Albion. We have recorded four sets of Dvořák quartets. There are 14 of them  and we are doing a sort of exploration of the cycles. I really love the music – it’s the kind of music which gives you joy and energy.

I’m also working on the complete violin and keyboard works by CPE Bach on modern instruments  with James Baillieu. This is quite a big project. Apart from the many different pieces, it is also about entering into another world that is very different from any other composer. It’s a wild and emotional style of writing. You can really see it on people like Schumann. The works are very very expressive, very virtuosic and very exciting to play. I played it in concert recently. The recording will be released as a double disc in 2019.

Also, I just recorded with the Czech Philharmonic a new concerto from an English composer Richard Blackford which they commisioned for me. The whole concerto tells about the Greek myth of Niobe. The violin plays the part of Niobe and it’s very theatrical as the whole concerto is very dramatic.  She basically showed off that she had 14 children, then she was punished and turned into a rock. We discussed a lot about Niobe and its relevance today, as she was punished for her boastfulness about her children. I think women all over the world still experience this unfair punishment for stepping outside of restricted boundaries. I think it’s very much a modern story that we can learn a lot from. The album will be out in summer 2018.

What about the Albion quartet, what is the story behind it?

It was officially just formed 18 months ago. The quartet consists of me, Emma Parker (violin), Rosalind Ventris (viola), and Nathaniel Boyd (cello). You know, for a string player, playing in a quartet is like the holy grail. I’ve always loved the idea but  it is very difficult to find four people who really share the same vision because it is such an intimate platform. You have to have shared ideals of music and much respect for each other. Actually we have known each other for years.  We met in the chamber music scene and we would just do projects. At some point, we said to each other: let’s do this seriously.

Quartet playing demands much more compared to a solo work. It needs so much refinement, nuance in interpretation, togetherness in a group, not only in how you change your sound, but also in the articulation and intonation as well. Quartet has always been a big love of mine, I’m happy that now I’m playing in one. We will be playing at Concertgebouw Amsterdam in April 2018.

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