Pekka Kuusisto and Britten Sinfonia are no strangers to ambitious and challenging programmes, and this evening at the Guildhall’s Milton Court was no exception. With twelve works by nine different composers, it was an exciting evening full of contrasts, with all the music leading up to a gripping performance of Britten’s Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. Kuusisto, charming as ever, explained before the concert started that they conceived of the evening as one that really consists of one piece of music with many different movements, as opposed to all separate pieces. And as he explained in the programme notes: “I wanted to build a programme that would feel like an extended version of the voyage those pieces take the listener on, and have the whole concert be like a preparation, an approach, to the Serenade.” It might sound ambitious, but Kuusisto and Britten Sinfonia succeeded in creating a dynamic and captivating evening.

Starting off with one of the two Nico Muhly works played, Three Songs for tenor and violin (and drone from orchestra), Britten Sinfonia and Kuusisto were joined on stage by frequent collaborator Mark Padmore. The drone emanating from the orchestra provided an interesting backdrop to the solos played by Kuusisto and sung by Padmore, though the piece lacked intensity and depth.

One of the more unorthodox programming moves was the performance of the third and fourth movements from Béla Bartók’s String Quartet no. 4 in different parts of the evening. The fourth movement, which is perhaps one of the most enjoyable pizzicato movements in the string quartet repertoire, came straight after Muhly’s first piece. The transition from Muhly’s second piece, Material in E flat for violin (and drone from orchestra) to the third movement of the quartet was more successful, with the players skilfully progressing from one piece to the next.

Even though all the pieces might have lead to Britten’s Serenade, the musical highlight of the evening was much earlier, with an exhilarating performance of Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Lighthouse. Even a generic performance of this piece would be an adventure, as the music is extraordinary in itself, but Britten Sinfonia provided the piece with such intensity and controlled chaos that it transcended itself.

Judith Weir’s I give you the end of a golden string, inspired by a poem by William Blake, was a beautiful piece of music with melodies slowly unfolding and many impressive solos from the musicians of Britten Sinfonia. It was followed by Nordheim’s Individualisierte Höhemessung der Lagen, a quiet piece that ended with just Kuusisto on stage and the rest of the orchestra playing off stage, which was somehow creepy and wonderful at the same time.

The grouping of pieces by Berg, Pärt and Crumb after each other was a very good move on Britten Sinfonia’s part. They followed from one another almost seamlessly, and in particular the transition from Pärt’s always impressive Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten to Crumb’s subdued and understated God Music was very effective. The Cantus received a powerful reading by Britten Sinfonia, while Crumb’s God Music (from Black Angels) seemed to almost cleanse the palate before the Sinfonia reached the evening’s climax with the Britten.

By far the most well-known piece of the evening, the Serenade was performed excellently by Britten Sinfonia, Mark Padmore and Stephen Bell. Padmore has a seemingly effortless voice and Stephen Bell supreme control of his instrument, both offering an extremely convincing performance. Kuusisto’s love for the piece shone through in the Sinfonia’s performance, and especially “Dirge” was fantastic to listen to.

Concerts like these give a lot of food for thought about how programmes work and whether or not it is worth going against tradition. In the end, I wholeheartedly agree with Kuusisto: “I think we could afford to have some more concerts that don’t follow the most common patterns. At the moment it doesn’t take more than a violinist performing without shoes to create a stir, and that says a lot. I don’t want to outlaw average programming, that’s not it, but there’s just so much we should try as well.”