In 2008, the first sounds that reveberated around the newly built Hall One at Kings Place was Bach's Suite for cello in G major, played by Christoph Richter. Chief executive Peter Millican remembers this moment in the introduction to this "Cello Unwrapped" programme, recalling: "It seemed back then, and still seems now, that Hall One was designed for solo cello. If you close your eyes, it's almost as if your are listening from inside the instrument." It was an idea worth putting to the test.

Leonard Elschenbroich © Felix Broede
Leonard Elschenbroich
© Felix Broede

This year's "Unwrapped" series focuses on the cello and is halfway through. Over some 50 concerts, grand cello masters are programmed alongside young and emerging talent. On Saturday, Leonard Elschenbroich joined with the 12 ensemble for an evening dedicated to the Suite italienne, a stroll through time though with a focus on contemporary composers.

The evening began with Antonio Vivaldi's Cello Concerto in G minor, RV417. It was a pleasure listening to soloist and ensemble perfectly working out the contrasting dynamics, jumping quickly from pianissimo to fortissimo. Vivaldi's strength is his Allegro movements, where his music becomes Baroque'n'roll. The third movement especially contains highly virtuosic passages that Elschenbroich mastered with apparent easy, breathing heavily. But there was no time to relax, as the evening continued with the programme's title composition, the Suite italienne by Igor Stravinsky.

In 1919-20 Stravinsky composed his ballet Pulcinella based on the music of early 18th century composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. He took this music and reworked, rearranged and recomposed it until he had transformed Pergolesi into Stravinsky. The ballet contains the Suite italienne which Stravinsky later transformed into a piece for violin and piano, then into a piece for cello and piano and again later, with the help of violinist Samual Dushkin, into a suite for violin and piano. This evening, the audience did not get to hear any of these versions, but enjoyed a completely different arrangement by cellist Benjamin Wallfisch.

This is another virtuoso piece, fast paced with a shaking pulse, beating like a heart-rate. In the second of four movements the musicians not only have to stroke, but to beat and pluck the strings. Above this driving pulse, a delicate and lyrical melody rises. The quality of Elschenbroich's and the ensemble's play was undeniably immaculate, but throughout the first half of the concert something was missing. The sound was radiant, the musicians striving for perfection, but we were left with a feeling of them being unapproachable. It would have been good to see the musicians enjoying themselves too!

The first half ended with Kate Whitley's Autumn Songs for 12 solo strings. The composer is also a pianist and founder of the Multi-Story Orchestra. Autumn Songs was a commission from the 12 ensemble and was finished in 2014 whilst staying in Italy “in a house surrounded by huge trees at the beginning of autumn”. Even on a hot summer day in London we could clearly hear the leaves falling in her music and, from time to time, they were not just swaying down to earth but a stormy breeze took hold of them. It was not a dangerous autumn wind but a certain tension was discernible. One continuous note was hold throughout most of the composition as the other instruments slowly moved forward from one harmony to another. It is not a work about melody, but is about process and movement.

The second half started with the music of another contemporary composer, James MacMillan and his Kiss on Wood arranged by Ingvar Karkoff. Something changed during the break. All musicians, including Elschenbroich, appeared more comfortable, their faces less tense, their movements more open. It was Elschenbroich's final performance of the evening before the ensemble continued on its own. The 12 ensemble is still a young one. Founded in 2012 by Artistic Directors Eloisa-Fleur Thom (leader) and Max Ruisi (principal cello) the ensemble is built around a core of 12 London-based chamber musicians who are committed to performing without a conductor. The last two compositions of the night formed a unit. Witold Lutosławski's Musique funèbre for strings and eventually Bryce Dessner's homage to this work, Réponse Lutosławski. It contained beautiful harmonies, modern, even pop-orientated at times, an exercise in rhythm mixed with sliding glissandi.

Sitting in the middle of the hall, I opened my eyes again towards the end of the concert. The sound was immaculate; even with all instruments playing together, you could still hear each single instrument radiating. It does indeed seem a place designed for solo cello, but string ensembles clearly work just as well too.