Following the success of his score for the Kenneth Macmillan ballet Isadora, Bennett wrote Noctuary in 1981 for an as yet unperformed ballet by Macmillan. It was, however, conceived as a concert piece for solo piano, and makes a strikingly original contribution to the variation repertoire.
The title means "a diary of the events of the night", and one of the most fascinating aspects of the work is the way Bennett moves from the musical world of Scott Joplin, in the theme and first three variations, through a wide variety of 20th century styles (from Ravel, Scriabin, and perhaps Gershwin) to his own individual concert music style in variations 12-14.
The piece is based on three sections of Joplin's Solace - A Mexican Serenade, and starts with three themes, interspersed with a variation on each in turn, though Variation 3 darkens the tonal palette with a sudden shift from F major to D flat major (Bennett's handling of an intriguing key scheme is a further fascinating feature of this work).
The succeeding variations are in turn elegant, nostalgic, impassioned, spiky, haunting, menacing and atmospheric, virtuoso and bubbling with rhythmic vitality.
After Variation 14, once the music has reached the work's most powerful climax, the Joplin theme (actually only the 2nd and 3rd themes) steals in quietly to return the music to its original mood, the work ending peacefully and most beautifully with the little 'tag' with which it began.