There are few experiences more satisfying than a well planned concert, and this entry in the English Chamber Orchestra’s King’s Place series was certainly that. A rich programme of English music was bookended by two works from Benjamin Britten’s mature years, Lachrymae for viola (in the version with string orchestra) and the Nocturne for tenor, obbligato instruments and strings, with Michael Tippett’s Corelli Fantasia and John Woolrich’s Ulysses Awakes a substantial pair of fillers.

Mark Padmore © Marco Borggreve
Mark Padmore
© Marco Borggreve

Yet the evening’s pleasures were flecked with disappointments. It’s all very well for the ECO’s upper string players to perform standing up in the manner of the Aurora Orchestra, but they need to have a reason for doing so. Otherwise it is just an affectation. I imagine it’s intended to help the musicians feel the music through their bodies to their instruments, which is certainly what Lawrence Power did as he led from the front; but his players, many of them still young enough to be receptive to new ideas, or so you’d have thought, remained rooted to the spot – and music that ought to have been ripped from their souls emerged from nowhere higher than the bow wrist. Certainly, the orchestra’s sound was often polished and the excellent internal balance a constant pleasure, but its physical presentation owed more to Antony Gormley than to Matthew Bourne.

Tenor Mark Padmore prefaced Britten’s Nocturne with an apologetic spoken defence of a cycle that lacks the immediate appeal of the Serenade, a work it otherwise resembles. His reluctance to trust the King’s Place audience, and perhaps even the score itself, was superfluous and revealing. In the event, Padmore’s performance was strong on clarity and composure, but he did not sound at ease despite its being a work he has lived with and recorded. The voice was more angry than ominous when Tennyson’s Kraken slept, his runs over-aspirated in Coleridge’s Encinctured with a Twine of Leaves, a perfumed song whose squirm-inducing text must have been catnip to the boy-loving composer. Further into the cycle things settled down and the tenor’s proud timbre, authoritative yet gentle, elided sweetness into plangency as the music demanded. Moreover – a big plus, this – he dealt better than most with the twee birdie tweets – twit twit twit – in Middleton’s Midnight’s Bell.

The ECO, which had grown in numbers work by work during the evening, was at full strength for the Nocturne and fielded a first-rate, though anonymous, septet of obbligato instrumentalists. Each player’s intervention was a flawless gem. Power’s discreet direction was exemplary, too, as it had been earlier in his eloquent and passionate account of Lachrymae (prefaced by an unaccompanied rendition from Padmore of the song that inspired it, Dowland’s If my complaints) and in his leadership on violin, along with the leader and first cellist (also anonymous; the ECO’s programme failed to list any of its own featured soloists, let alone rank and file members) of the Fantasia on a Theme of Corelli. Here, a surer touch from the violins in Tippett’s filigree passages – and fewer ensemble smudges – would have allowed the music to take flight, while the work’s great rhapsodic tutti cried out for a more excavatory conviction than Power’s players achieved.

John Woolrich was present to hear an eloquent account of his reworked arias from Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria; ironically it was this, the only work by a living composer, that contained the evening’s most audience-friendly music. Woolrich’s elaboration of familiar Baroque material into the ten-minute Ulysses Awakes gave Power’s viola a lip-smacking showpiece in music that could happily underscore a sword 'n' sandal epic.