Benjamin Grosvenor gave the first performance of my new piano piece Day Break Shadows Flee in the lunchtime Prom this week – thanks to the wonders of the Proms Website, here it is.
So much has been said about this brilliant young English artist that I need hardly add any more. But after working with him on this BBC commission, I will just observe that, with his asiduous mastery of detail and interest in timbre, he’s exactly the kind of pianist that new music needs. Several people at the concert observed that ‘Day Break’ fitted well with Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales which preceded it; that’s thanks to Benjamin’s performance, playing it so thoughtfully and confidently that it sounded like ‘repertoire’. When I wrote my music I had no idea what else he would be playing.
So I was interested to see him say (in the Gramophone and the Guardian) that he has never played a work to its composer before – whereas my own composing experience is entirely to do with meeting performers. It led me to list the issues that Benjamin could discuss with me, but alas not with Beethoven.
Tempo is the first thing that performers usually ask me about, anxiously – was that what I meant? On the whole my metronome seems fairly reliable (unlike Ludwig’s); but minimal variants can have big consequences. Dynamics are often a vale of tears. Composers hate putting them into the score – it’s an immense labour simply to write them in, somehow we have become used to having them thickly spread over the music (I blame Mahler) and yet they still give only vague guidance. Quite a few times hearing Benjamin’s beautiful phrasing, I realised I’d put crescendo marks in backwards – or I hadn’t bargained for how faithfully he’d render a low register ff – several of those had to come down in volume.
What should composers tell pianists about pedalling ? Having worked with Benjamin I’m glad I put hardly any pedal marks in the score this time; pedalling seems a flowing, natural extension of his finger technique, rather like vibrato for a string player, and not something I could impose (I also came away awed that a pianist at that level simply never uses the sustain pedal as I do, to fudge difficult finger leaps!) But I found the biggest scope for advice lay simply in adding pauses and breaths between sections – tiny gaps and breaks too small to notate. They made a lot of difference. As so often, the whole rehearsal experience reminded me how much is left out of the score, however careful the notation. That’s why it’s so useful for the performer to meet the composer (if still alive).