A sensitively curated programme of contemporary music for strings presented a variety of approaches to the medium over the past 13 years. Bound together by themes of nature, colour, and life, the works performed by the English String Orchestra ranged from the blissful pastoralism of Emily Doolittle's falling still to the extended effects of Kaija Saariaho's Terra Memoria. While the pieces complemented one another, not all of them were effective and the performances given by the ESO were of mixed standard.

Based on the idea of a fundamental opposition between an arioso idea and a violent antagonist, Thea Musgrave's Green contains an interesting juxtaposition between Mendelssohnian classicism and discordant, jagged writing. The lyrical material is gradually eroded by this intruding idea, prompting cello, viola and finally violin to make impassioned entreaties (with the luminous sound of cellist Peter Adams and the sonorous tones of violist Carmen Flores standing out). Even though the ESO's performance became more convincing as the piece progressed, there were still significant problems: not only did Kenneth Woods' sturdy tempi prevent the piece from fully taking flight, but violin intonation was far from ideal and ensemble often approximate.

The world première of Deborah Pritchard's Wall of Water was the centrepiece of the programme. Inspired by a set of thirteen sea paintings by British artist Maggi Hambling, Pritchard incorporated her responses into a convincing musical whole. Bound together by a semitone motif, the work is cast in an arch form but appears to unravel as a single seamless musical gesture. Beginning with a violin soliloquy, the accompaniment grows from an expectant bass pedal to form a texture of undulating ostinati, reminiscent of Debussy's La mer. As the projected paintings merge into one another, Pritchard offers a number of angles on this seascape, presenting the new perspectives with the aid of an enchanting harmonic palette. Her use of the violin is atmospheric, utilising passages of hazy incantation and searing virtuosity to unfold the narrative. Soloist Harriet Mackenzie gave a commanding performance, her direct sound matching the energy and bold colours of the paintings behind her. The luminous brilliance of her upper range was particularly effective in the more involved central section, as art and composition alike introduced new colours. With a tight structure, beguiling harmonies and a fantastical atmosphere, this concerto reveals Pritchard to have an innate talent for pacing and drama.

Written in 2001, Canadian composer Emily Doolittle's falling still may have been the oldest piece on the programme, yet this performance was its UK première. A brief work for solo violin and ensemble, it possessed notable similarities to Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending. Inspired by a blackbird singing at dawn, the piece saw the violin soloist meditate on a motif, exploring its harmonic implications over sustained string accompaniment. While the soundworld was undeniably attractive, the work didn't seem to go anywhere and seemed oddly conservative, leaving me somewhat unsatisfied.

Another UK première, Kaija Saariaho's Terra memoria was originally written for string quartet but arranged for ensemble by the composer herself. Dedicated "for those departed", the piece is inspired by the idea of memory: in this case, how certain musical material evolves over time. Unfolding in an arch form, the work seemed to lose direction towards the end, disintegrating into a number of episodes. A shadowy opening section evoked a mournful mood, with sinking chromatic lines and ritualistic circular figures in the strings. After this opening processional, the work erupted into a totentanz, heightening the sense of claustrophobia through sighing semitones and ominous bass pedals. Ethereal flutterings and glassy harmonics opened an otherwordly space towards the end of the work, finally subsiding into silence. Although the violin intonation still wasn't perfect, the ESO gave an atmospheric performance which brought the concert to a suitably evocative end.

One last point: music by female composers should not need a separate label, so it was refreshing to see the ESO omit this term, describing the programme merely as a selection of contemporary music. A concert which features such gems provides further evidence of the riches which remain underappreciated, even for composers from our own times.