Salon Séance has, for the last five years, been inviting dead composers to performances of their works. Past conjurings have included Janáček and Schoenberg, with scenes staged involving a medium and a perhaps fabricated exchange with the composer about his work. It makes for a match made in heaven with Death of Classical – a presenting organization dedicated to the macabre within the tradition – which resulted in “Britten in Persona” at the Harlem Crypt beneath the Church of the Intercession in upper Manhattan.

Salon Séance © Kevin Condon
Salon Séance
© Kevin Condon

The program, comprised of Britten's first two string quartets and excerpts from his Suite for Violin and Piano, Op. 6 (youthful pieces for a séance!), was orally annotated by the actor Sagine Valla, delivering lines written by Noelle P Wilson, derived from a variety of the composer's published letters, diaries and other texts.

Cellist Mihai Marica demonstrated a remarkable tone, especially in the small, stone chamber, and sounded actually amplified and very human in front of the dissonant higher strings in the opening measures of the First String Quartet, which began the program. Once the ensemble hit full Allegro vivo gallop, the viola (said to have been Britten's favorite instrument) of Tien-Hsin Cindy Wu took the fore, singing beautifully.

As the first movement came to a close, Valla appeared stage left, lit hard from the side. She struck a singer's pose, waited for the music to end, then (as Britten) entered into dialogue with the musicians about artistic expression during war and the composer's brief sojourn to the United States, an astral connection aided, she said, by the playing of his music, cuing them to carry on with the second movement.

It was a compelling way of providing program notes (and of forcing the audience to receive them), but what we didn't get was a chance to dialogue with the spirit, which in fact is what one wants from such an occasion. We didn't get to ask Mr Britten about the afterlife – or this world, still ravaged by war, for that matter. We didn't get to ask him about Jonathan Dawe or Caroline Shaw or Radiohead or the National. We didn't get to ask him if music had lost its profundity. We didn't get to ask him, if we'd even dared, about whether LGBTQ battles have been fought hard enough. What we got was to listen to his pontification and, more importantly, his composition.

Britten's dual love for tone row dissonance and the Western melodic tradition creates a cinematic tension, melodies that could have come from Elgar set against too-tight intervals. He is in a small class of composers – with Boulez, Ligeti, and a handful of others – who made the advancements of the Second Viennese School more palatable, for better or worse, more easily enjoyable. But more so than those other composers, we don't hear Britten often enough in the city he so briefly called 'home'.

There was, not a tension but a bifurcation in Salon Séance's production, something like there is in Britten's music, in the dichotomy of simplicity and difficulty. Pieces were started and stopped again; the suite in particular was used as fairly intrusive incidental music. When the musicians played, we waited for the story. When the narration resumed, we waited for the concert. And when they collided, we – or, at least, I – longed for focus.

Well, not entirely so. When the second quartet was played in full, after a few short stops, it was played without interruption and beautifully, which certainly helped. When they broke into stride in the final movement, it was positively preternatural, and it was there that they concluded the performance, with the music, as Britten no doubt would have wanted, or indeed did want it to be.