Pianist Benjamin Grosvenor writes an exclusive blog for Gramophone before his Proms appearances
I’m preparing to play the world premiere of Day Break Shadows Flee by Judith Weir in my Chamber Music Prom on September 1, and it’s proving a hugely enjoyable challenge. I haven’t performed very much contemporary music in my career, but it’s something I’ve wanted to dig deeper into for a long time – so when this opportunity arose, I jumped at it. It’s been a rewarding process, and different from the way I usually work. When preparing a work that is in the core repertoire, or that has existed for some time, I'll probably have heard it at some point before the learning process begins. It’s inescapable in the age of recording. But there’s no way that I can have heard Day Break Shadows Flee, and that makes for a refreshing experience, to approach something with no preconceived ideas and without traces of conceptions of the piece by others in the memory. After I received the score at the end of May, I had some correspondence with Judith about it, and she’s been great at helping me understand her ideas. I haven’t played it for her yet, but I’m hoping to do that soon, and am looking forward to discussing it more with her.
It’s a beautiful work - about 10 minutes long - which contrasts stillness with activity, light with dark. It begins with rising phrases at the top of the keyboard, representing the arrival of light and of the day. Textural contrasts feature throughout between these shafts of light, and scurrying semiquavers - in darting chromatic movement - depicting the nervous life of the early morning. She calls it a ‘Two Part Invention’ – partly because of the contrast of these two ideas - but also because the hands are quite independent of each other. They are often widely spaced, creating transparent textures. There are lots of contrasted dynamic markings between the hands and chromatic passages that weave in divergent directions - in Judith's words 'the hands work in close coordination, but independently' - which can be challenging to get under the fingers. I may play the work from memory for the concert, but I haven't yet decided for sure!
An initial challenge was in working out what to programme with this premiere. When the Proms team asked me to give a recital this season, they also asked if I’d like to include a new work they were hoping to commission from Judith. They told me I could have free rein to choose what else to include but that turned out to be a bit of a problem, since I hadn’t received the title at that stage. But I’d heard Judith’s music when I played at the First Night of the Proms in 2011 – her terrific choral piece Stars, Night, Music and Light opened the concert – and I had an idea how atmospheric and pictorial her style could be. So I chose to programme works that have similar goals and effects, evoking particular atmospheres and images. After Chopin’s tragic Ballade No 1, I’m playing a set of three pieces by Mompou, Paisajes (scenery), which 'paint in sound' pictures from the Spanish countryside - the last piece, written more than 10 years after the other two, seems to me to convey a feeling of heat, the dissonant harmonies and suspended quality evoking an arid Spanish summer. Before Judith’s work, there is Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, an intimate, haunting set of waltzes, a nostalgic farewell to a genre and era. The recital ends with Liszt's deliciously spicy elaboration of the Waltz from Gounod's Faust. Although a little guess-work was involved, in retrospect I think this will make for a fine programme.
It has been described in some places as a 'dance-themed' Prom, but that is not entirely the case. Though a substantial part is devoted to dance music, I think of it more as a concise but varied cycle through music of the last few centuries. Perhaps they’ve been linking it to my latest CD, 'Dances', which certainly is dance-themed, including dances by Bach, Chopin, Scriabin and Granados - and even some Boogie-woogie from Morton Gould to finish. But, whether the Prom turns out to be dance-like or not, it’s an honour for me to perform a premiere by the new Master of the Queen’s Music.
Decca have given Gramophone's readers an opportunity to listen to two bonus tracks from Benjamin Grosvenor's new album 'Dances', click below: