Unusually for a classical concert, the Queen's Hall was decked out with cabaret tables. Seated at the front I had a unique perspective on audio elements such as blend and separation of instruments and such visual elements as musicians' cues (varying from direct eye contact to trusting peripheral vision) and the normally overlooked feature of footwork.

Toru Takemitsu © Schott Japan
Toru Takemitsu
© Schott Japan

Herbert Howells 1921 Rhapsodic Quintet Op. 31 was a delightful opener. Although in no way atonal, the piece is written without key signature, the defining sharps and flats more like visitors on a temporary visa than residents. At one point the players divide into varying metres of 3/2 and 4/2. Neither of these features threaten the lyricism of this gem of English pastoral impressionism. Towards the end the was one moment of pure magic where the supremely musical Yann Ghiro's clarinet merged perfectly with con sordino (muted) string quartet.

Harpist Gabriella Dall'Olio featured in the first half's remaining two works. As featured soloist in Ravel's 1905 Introduction and Allegro her playing was, by turn, delicate and muscular. Commissioned by Érard (makers of pianos and harps), the work's central purpose was to showcase increased musical possibilities made possible technological advances in harp construction. The harp's plucked sororities was nicely offset by flute, clarinet and string quartet. Ravel's impressionistic language, tinged with tiny moments of Iberian sensibility, was well conveyed.

My favourite work in the first half was Toru Takemitsu's 1992 And then I knew 'twas Wind. The title quotes the second line of “Like Rain it sounded till it curved” by Amherst's posthumously published poet, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886). Like wind, the piece has no discernible pulse and this performance was a miracle of ensemble skill, navigated more by intuition than cueing. Self-taught Takemitsu was a devotee of Debussy and, although there is evidence of that in the music, the sound world is entirely his own – neither truly Japanese nor European. A quietly captivating performance.

We returned from the interval to find Owen Gunnell's marimba centre-stage. To his left was “O Duo” partner Oliver Cox, manning an assortment of percussion instruments. The official title of the 1984 Minoru Miki piece played is Marimba Spiritual for marimba & 3 percussionists. However, it was very impressively handled by only two players here, Gunnell departing the marimba at one point to join Cox in unpitched percussion, along with some martial sounding cries. The transition from the meditative to the dynamic was enhanced by a change from hard to soft mallets – two-per-hand in each case. Such virtuosic playing requires not only great manual dexterity but nifty footwork to cover the marimba's length. I found myself wondering how extensively footwork is covered in percussion tuition. I sensed parallels with boxing; most people only see the hands, but if the feet aren't beneath them there is no weight in the punches. Gunnell's moves varied from deep, Haka-like stances, to gravity defying leaps. This was a thoroughly dynamic performance from both players which raised quite a cheer in a generally politely reserved audience.

The culmination of this fine programme involved the largest grouping of the evening: soprano Jane Irwin joined flute, clarinet, two percussionists, harp, viola and cello in a performance of Berio's 1964 Folk Songs. Written for the composer's wife, American singer Cathy Berberian, this collection of eleven songs features music from Armenia, Azerbaijan, France and Italy. Included are folks songs by Berio himself. I found this an interesting notion, almost like stepping outside evolution, bypassing popular culture's centuries-long process of natural selection.

I can imagine no singer more suited to this performance than the excellent Irwin. The intimidating coarseness of “A la Femminisca”, sung at the dockside by the waiting wives of Sicilian fisherman, captured not only the outdoor voice but the hard truth that this culture has been wrought by those far from the music of court, church and country house. This contrasted nicely with the gentler “Loosin yelav” from Armenia, home of Berberian's antecedents. The instrumental close to this song was simply magical. Vocal joy was the winning ingredient of Berio's “Ballo”. Eerie resignation informed the Sardinian “Motettu di tristura”, where nightingale song is compared to love's pains.

Enchanting, antiphonal crotales attended the gently rocking “Rossignolet du bois”. Excellent instrumental ensemble shone in Berio's own “La Donna Idealle”, the opening phrases of which seemed more to evaporate than to end. From the compositional point of view I was drawn to the viola part in the opening “Black is the Colour” where the impressive Rachel Roberts operated independently of the voice.

Once again the Hebrides Ensemble's flair for programming, recruiting, preparation and performance ensured a life-affirming experience. So many wondrous voyages in the care of such a compact crew; extraordinary!