Last year, Royal Northern Sinfonia’s Late Mix series sprang a delightful surprise on us at a concert of 1920s French chamber music, by setting out the auditorium in Hall Two as a café, to create a cabaret atmosphere. This year, they repeated this successful innovation with a sophisticated programme of music by composers from Central Europe that mixed folk and gypsy influences with a dose of Parisian cosmopolitanism.

Flautist Juliette Bauser and pianist John Reid opened with a scorching performance of Enescu’s Cantabile et Presto. The slow Cantabile was dripping with passion, before John Reid’s vivacious thumping chords launched a wickedly flirtatious Presto, full of enjoyably precise legato runs. The other wind piece was Martinů’s Sextet for Piano and Winds, in which the composer takes the unusual step of switching the French horn from the standard line-up for an additional bassoon. Martinů was living in Paris when he wrote the sextet in 1929, and cleverly mixes bits of jazz and blues in with earlier European styles. John Reid’s piano accompaniment sparkled against Eilidh Gillespie’s mellow flute solo in the first Divertimento and Stephen Reay made the most of his moment of glory in the Blues that followed, in which the first bassoon pretends to be a saxophone.

Cellist Gabriel Waite had introduced us to Martinů earlier in the evening, with the words “Martinů! Splendid chap!”, before he and his wife, Jane Nossek, played the lovely Duo No 2 for Piano and Cello, giving us a privileged peek inside their living room in this intimate performance. The work begins with both instruments seemingly going their own way, playing independent lines, but briefly coming together, like a happy couple at a busy cocktail party, and in both outer movements there was often a gypsy feel in the swirling circular melodies; Gabriel Waite and Jane Nossek played these faster passages with a cheerful excitement that was never rushed or frantic. In the middle came a gorgeous Adagio with a hymn-like tune that wandered off into melancholic introspection, gradually losing its way, finally falling into fragments in the cello line under a shimmering violin tremolo.   

Introducing Bartók’s Rhapsody No.1, violinist Jenny Chang talked about how much the composer’s own recording of the piece (made with the violinist Josef Szigeti, for whom it was written), differs from the printed score, quoting Bartók’s reminder that music is never fixed in stone. Her own performance of the Rhapsody started with a stretchy, laid-back tempo, a little on the loud side for the venue, but with gorgeous resonance in the lower notes. The piece works up to a simple folk-tune that reminds me strongly of the Shaker tune in Appalachian Spring, then explodes into a virtuosic whirlwind, piano and violin competing with each other to see which can be most inventive. I don’t know whether Jenny Chang and John Reid stuck rigidly to the printed score, but they certainly conjured up Bartók’s spirit of two friends happily jamming. Violist James Slater then brought us gently back to earth with Enescu’s lovely Concert piece for Viola and Piano. According to the excellent programme notes, Enescu despised flamboyant gestures in performance; this piece was stylish and graceful, and the richness of the viola’s tone added extra depth.

A selection of movements from Dvořák’s Cypresses took us back to an earlier time. They were originally written as a set of love songs when Dvořák was recovering from a failed romance with his pupil Josefina Čermáková, but he seems to have been very pragmatic, for he later recycled the songs as a set of string quartets and married Josefina’s younger sister. The first retained the freshness of a young composer, and I enjoyed the bustle of No. 11 that seemed to belie its title, Stillness Lies in Nature’s Realm.   

Alongside his vivacious accompaniments, pianist John Reid played Kodály’s Dances from Marosszék, a work he said he didn’t know until this concert. He recommended that we listen to Toscanini’s recording of the orchestral version, but after his performance that seemed hardly necessary, for he summoned up a whole wealth of orchestral colour on his own. Kodály gives us a sumptuous cinematic tune in the first movement, then whips it away, hinting tantalisingly at it. As in the Bartók, John Reid captured the sense of folky improvisation in the final section, always retaining crystal clarity, no matter how fast and furiously the music whirled around – this was particularly effective when his hands were spread at the extreme ends of the keyboard.

Like last year’s cabaret concert, the informal seating, our proximity to the musicians and their friendly chatting made for a fantastic live experience, the sort of thing that you can never reproduce on a recording. It was also a chosen time of year, for this inventive programme gave a deliciously piquant contrast to the sweetness of Christmas music.