The second concert of the New York Philharmonic’s Barbican residency saw Alan Gilbert’s pioneering contemporary music ensemble CONTACT! come to Milton Court to present five works from the last 25 years. Although CONTACT! gravitates towards sinfoniettas or chamber symphonies, here we had no more than five musicians on stage at any one time; the intimacy of the hall and the ensemble belied the surging intensity of the performances; here were players totally committed to the delivery of very exciting music.

What struck me, though, was the nostalgic, historicist quality of much of the music presented here. The second piece on the programme, Timo Andres’ Early to Rise (2013), for string quartet, takes as its foundation a five-note figure from Schumann’s Gesänge der Frühe, twisting it into a relaxed canon before an arching, upward-surging cello melody takes us firmly into fin de siècle Vienna. Structurally, this is nothing less than a four-movement string quartet lasting just 10 minutes. Lovely passages abound, and the music flows beautifully, the quartet writing perfectly conversational. Some intonation and balance issues did not distract from the wonderful playing, particularly from cello Eileen Moon and violinist Fiona Simon. A final, hushed chorale was an affecting prelude to the madcap finish.

Missy Mazzoli’s 2010 Dissolve, O my Heart, for solo violin, is in many respects similar to Andres’ quartet. Taking the initial chord of Bach’s Chaconne in D minor from the Second Partita as its starting point, it then branches out; a chaconne theme struggles vainly to step fully out in to the light, before breaking down and giving way to roulades; these two ideas alternate in an unbridled flow of expressive, improvisatory rhetoric, before a final reappearance of that struggling chaconne theme is a spiritually devastating chorale. The title, taken from Bach’s St John Passion, only compounds the work’s solemnity. Anna Rabinova was unimpeachable here, unpretentious but deeply expressive at every moment, even in the muted, halting utterances of the chaconne theme’s unwieldy chords. The silence that closed the piece was the quietest of the evening; Mazzoli’s response to Bach is not austere, not grand, but human, reflective, and uplifting.

Both pieces are openly 'traditional', but where Mazzoli goes on to create something new and deeply felt, something personal, Andres never really transcends the neo-Romantic. The weight of the string quartet’s history presses heavily upon Early to Rise, and though its technical accomplishment is beyond dispute, the tonal-but-with-caveats harmonic language, as well as the 'compressed' form the quartet takes, are pure pre-1910 Schoenberg.

The latter quality was also in evidence in Esa-Pekka Salonen’s 2007 work Homunculus, named for the “arcane spermists”, who believed each sperm was a “perfect little man” placed into a woman to grow. As such, he wanted a “little piece that behaves like a big piece”. It’s very much in Salonen’s characteristic vein; intense rhythmic excitement, delicate toccatas, and bombastic tuttis with a powerful bass. I’m not sure it’s functionally or musically so individuated from Nyx, which the NY Philharmonic played the night before, though some filmic special effects (long, ensemble glissandi) provide entertainment. Again, the playing of CONTACT! was fabulously committed, with the confident opening chords pounding like chisels and the broader passages finely judged, with Patrick Jee in a star turn on the cello.

At the start of the whole event, we heard Daníel Bjarnason’s Five Possibilities (2014) for clarinet, cello, and piano; a short work, with each of its five movements suggesting a compositional 'possibility'. A broad structure based on ascending and then descending register is launched by the opening’s effervescent scales, closing with stygian gloom, a dead landscape portrayed by dark piano chords, with shafts of light in the cello and clarinet – even if Pascual Martínez Forteza’s ghostly clarinet entries were occasionally a little too quiet. Forteza was certainly the star of the show here, the most melancholy, searching lines effortlessly brought to life.

The post-modernity of the earlier pieces on the programme was brought into relief by the unabashedly modern Mirage (1990) by Shulamit Ran, for flute, violin, cello, clarinet, and piano. The work begins with long, mysterious Hasidic tunes for the amplified alto flute, a brilliant touch of orchestration which brings the otherworldly sound of the instrument to the fore, especially when played as brilliantly as by Yoobin Son. A dense, uncompromising middle section explores magically the sonic possibilities of the ensemble; I couldn’t help but marvel at the difference produced by changing between piccolo, flute, and alto flute. Described by Ran as “incantatory”, the work is saturated with very rarefied, delicate textures, and mind-bending sonic experimentation; what comes through, though, even in the 'oldest' work of the night, is an authentically personal voice, certainly the most original. Most of all, though, only praise for CONTACT!, who demonstrated contemporary music in America is in very capable hands.