WORKS: Sudden Time
PERFORMER: London Philharmonic/George Benjamin
CATALOGUE NO: NI 1432 DDD
Ringed by the Flat Horizon for orchestra, George Benjamin’s first widely known work, dates from 1979-80 when he was still a student, and was heard at the Proms after its French premiere in 1980. The composer’s problem has been to live up to its potential, in the glare of unusual publicity.
Sudden Time (1989-93) is not just the only large-scale piece Benjamin had written for seven years, but also only his second substantial work for orchestra to reach completion; even now, he’s tinkering with its details. Quality rather than quantity, then? Well, yes, and partly on account of the nature and number of all the details packed into these 15 minutes for very large orchestra – fastidious attention to the minutiae of sub-divided string parts, for instance – details too detailed for them all to be picked up on what seems an excellent performance on a good recording, even with the aid of a score.
Sudden Time is tough listening, from the title’s origins in Wallace Stevens to the piece’s complex structure, which triumphantly survives a suicidal-seeming halt to the proceedings after four minutes. Benjamin writes of ‘perpetual organic change’, ‘bifurcation’ and much else. But the pulse which ‘warps and splits apart’ can sometimes be clearly heard. I enjoyed trying to listen in melodic terms too, and even for recurring pitch centres. Not easy, then, but very rewarding.