Auckland Chamber Orchestra returned to Raye Freedman Arts Centre with a typically eclectic programme. The pieces were performed in reverse chronological order, from Ligeti of the 1950s back to Wagner of the 1860s, via Poulenc and Janáček. While I can’t say that this combination particularly shed new light on any of the works, the fairly extreme mood contrasts made for a consistently interesting evening. Performance-wise, the quality ranged from the wonderful (in the Janáček Concertino especially) to some pieces which didn’t quite manage to catch fire.

Those who know Ligeti through the pieces used in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey were in a for a surprise with his Six Bagatelles for wind quintet, pieces completely different in style and mood. The influences of Bartok (the fifth Bagatelle is dedicated to him) and folk music feature heavily; in fact, one would find it difficult to divine that these pieces were by Ligeti without prior knowledge. They are however, delightful and accomplished miniatures, chromatically biting and high-spirited in tone. While the players captured the sense of whimsy on the opening Bagatelle perfectly, there were some ensemble issues. These improved somewhat but confidence was never quite fully gained; the horn in particular suffering from some tuning and accuracy problems. Neither were the little scraps of melody quite given the prominence they needed to rise above the rest of the sound texture.

In the ensuing performance of Le Bal Masqué, the orchestra (made up almost entirely of different players) were on immaculate form, bringing all the right Gallic flair and wit to Poulenc’s café instrumentation score. Poulenc set the verses of the absurdist poet Max Jacob. This piece is usually associated with baritones, but on this occasion mezzo Christie Cook showed a lovely voice that wasn’t quite a perfect match for Poulenc’s cantate profane. Enunciation of the text at the necessary speed is a difficult enough endeavour which Cook largely achieved with aplomb, but her diction wasn't as clear as would be ideal in this wordy piece. She was sometimes vocally overwhelmed by the orchestra. Cook's stage presence, however, was perfect; performing the work from memory, she sat delicately on a stool, masked, during the instrumental interludes before suddenly coming alive in her songs. The varied facial expressions she fashioned as she intoned Jacob's texts were hilariously arch and over-the-top. She also has a way of holding herself that suggests the stage is her natural environment.

The best performance of the evening was given straight after the interval. The Janáček Concertino is, with its unusual scoring, a highly acerbic but fascinating work. The first movement is essentially a duet for the piano and horn, and the second a duet for piano and E-flat clarinet. Happily the horn playing here was much more assured than in the Ligeti (a different player, however). Clarinet soloist (and music director) Peter Scholes made the most of his restless solo turns in the second movement as well as his beautiful, nocturnal part in the third movement. David Guerin’s piano playing was very insistent in the first movement; at first I thought a bit much so, before recalling that Janáček described this movement as conveying a “grumpy hedgehog”. Guerin was very sensitive in the remaining movements, showing the qualities of a great chamber musician. Every player found a magical buoyancy of touch for the final movement.

Last up was an indulgently Romantic account of Wagner’s autumnal Siegfried Idyll in its original chamber orchestra guise. Written for his wife Cosima’s birthday in 1870, the Idyll was intended to celebrate their son Siegfried through music. It was spun out here at a fairly static speed which was diffuse in parts. But what a lovely sound, round and smooth, with the instruments having enough individual bite to avoid sounding too homogeneous. A great deal of attention was paid to dynamic detail, ranging from the quietest of whispers to an almost full-orchestral level of volume. Both horns were in secure form here, but special mention needs to be made of Miranda Adams's first violin – rapturously swirling through the “Ewig war ich” melody familiar from the opera Siegfried. A blissful ending to a concert that had its share of high points.