Contemporary classical music is happening in all manner of unexpected venues in London at the moment, from Peckham car parks to pubs. But it isn't just getting edgier – it's also getting more respectable, if last night's suave affair in the Royal Albert Hall's Elgar Room is anything to go by. Set in a relaxed, up-market bar lounge area with the performers having to squeeze their way past beer-sipping patrons to get to the stage, all that separated this recital from a debonair evening of light jazz was a rather reverential, attentive atmosphere and some intense lighting. Oh, and the music.

LCO's Antoine Françoise (und Daniel Pioro ist auch dabei)
LCO's Antoine Françoise (und Daniel Pioro ist auch dabei)

In this recital, soloists from the London Contemporary Orchestra presented a range of solo pieces written in the last fifty years or so. All were played with technical excellence and a real sense of engagement, which turned the evening into as intimate and personal an event as its setting suggested – even if a couple of the pieces veered into more austere territory than I was quite prepared for.

The first piece was Luciano Berio's Sequenza IXa for clarinet. This is one of the calmer entries in Berio's legendarily difficult series of solo Sequenze; though still a vigorous technical workout, it lacks the manic edge of some of the others, and in the assured hands of Scott Lygate it had a light, conversational air. As impressive as any of the passagework-style virtuosity was Lygate's control of tone, and most impressive of all was some wonderfully controlled soft playing, including the gentlest of gentle endings.

The atmosphere of easygoing, chatty virtuosity thus established was built on in Antoine Françoise's two piano solos, Thomas Adès' Darknesse Visible and Jonathan Harvey's Homage to Cage, à Chopin (und Ligeti ist auch dabei). The former is a beautiful showpiece, all about texture and registral shifts, raptly recasting a lute song by John Dowland into an excitable contemporary idiom. The Harvey piece is also based on another composition – in this case the finale of Chopin's third piano sonata – and to complicate matters its title is something of a contemporary music in-joke, which references György Ligeti's piece Selbstporträt mit Reich und Riley (und Chopin ist auch dabei). However cliquey its name, though, it's a thrilling listen which feeds the Chopin material through a piano prepared with the same configuration of screws and other things on the strings as John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes. Françoise handled both of these testing works fantastically, and with a real sense of enthusiasm.

Violist Robert Ames' two pieces were Simulacrum by Jonathan Cole, and Morton Feldman's The Viola in my Life III. They're contrasting works – Feldman's is a soft celebration of tone made up of occasional vibrato-less held notes, while Cole's explores different instrumental techniques with swooshy bowing effects and harmonics – but in Ames' performance they shared a fascination with the beauty of sound.

George Benjamin's Three Miniatures for Violin are a compositional show-stealer, and sounded as exquisite as violinist Daniel Pioro said they were in his introduction. They are brief, but pack in a range of emotions and styles, taking us from bluesy and delicate to brittle and harsh, and the most startling section here was a long passage in the third miniature in which Pioro accompanied himself, plucking strings with his left hand while bowing a melody with his right.

I wasn't convinced by the inclusion of a John Cage radio work, Excerpts 7pm to 8pm, played after the Harvey. While generally I'm all for programming as much Cage as possible (especially in his anniversary year), this recital's carefully cultivated calm ambience suffered a little on forcing the crowd to listen to some randomly assembled passages of noise culled from several radios. Joely Cragg's brilliant, vehement performance of Iannis Xenakis' Psappha also suffered a little from its context: when so much calm music had come before, this ludicrously loud rhythmic percussion study seemed out of place. It's an enormously exciting piece and was certainly performed with vigour, but relaxing into one's comfy chair during it was not a possibility.

But overall there was a huge amount to enjoy in this recital, and all the pieces played received great advocacy from their performers. It's always a treat to hear music played with passion, and to hear such interesting music as all this played with passion is better still.

****1