It’s not that Bruckner ever called it Symphony no. 0. He was a slightly strange fellow who when stressed displayed a peculiar interest in numbers and dots, but his symphonies were numbered quite simply one to nine, full stop. But there remained this symphony in D minor, written after his first symphony in 1869 and originally designated no. 2, that for reasons that are hard to fathom – especially on the evidence of this very fine performance in Branksome – Bruckner decided few years later was not worthy of the canon. “Nullified. Only an attempt”, he wrote on it. Nevertheless, he didn’t destroy it. Here and there on one copy he wrote a mark like a zero with line through it. This, together with some misinformation that led many commentators to think it was composed before No. 1, has led to its intriguing name of Symphony no. 0.

Ian Lowes, the conductor, has played in performances of all the Bruckner symphonies in his erstwhile role as professional horn player with various orchestras, including the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, and he has conducted several. For this performance he went through the arduous task of making all the orchestral parts himself, so effectively what was played was Lowes’ edition of the symphony. This gave him a knowledge of the work so thorough and so intimate that he was able to conduct the performance without a score – no mean achievement for such a rarely played work, performed by a non-professional orchestra.

This meant that there was considerable attention to detail in the performance: dynamics were especially well observed. It’s rare to hear any orchestra in Bruckner grade the dynamic level with any subtlety throughout the range from pianissimo to treble forte, but the St Aldhelm’s Orchestra had obviously been very effectively rehearsed: they achieved this and enhanced the work’s appeal immensely. This was at times quite a challenge for the strings – keeping the intonation secure in quieter passages stretched their capabilities – but often, especially in the lyrical second subjects, or the trio of the Scherzo, they surprised with a beautiful tone that was a sudden joy to hear. The lower strings were very secure and right from the start provided the firm ground upon which their colleagues were able to construct the thematic burden of the work. “Where’s the main theme?” the conductor Dessoff had asked Bruckner when they played the symphony through on the piano. There was no doubt where it was this evening, the violins presenting the slightly hypnotic repeated figure with an infectious vitality that drew you immediately into the narrative of the work.

The brass throughout showed themselves equal to the big, brazen main themes of the outer movements, but also handled their chorale-like meditations with an apposite inwardness. Every now and then in the work a horn solo rises above the bustling strings, and these were accomplished with aplomb. There are woodwind interventions, quasi-ornamental, in the quiet central development of the first movement, and also in the finale, that were beautifully played by flute and clarinet, a delight to hear.

There is not enough space to describe the manifold enchantments of this performance, but a word needs to be said about the overall proportions of the work. The codas, to each movement, were especially effective, but this was due not merely to the exemplary handling of the tempo and dynamic. Certainly the expressive playing of clarinets, oboes and bassoon in their quiet interruption of the race to the first movement’s close was spellbinding, and the final phrase of the slow movement was uttered by the strings as though it were a prayer, and the wonderfully forthright timpani playing made sure the Scherzo and Finale ended with bang – but above and beyond all this was the great formal arch that Lowes managed to construct, so that each movement and the symphony as a whole had a natural proportion, and this mere “attempt” came over as a masterpiece worthy of the composer of symphonies, as the programme note has it, “now considered to be some of the finest ever written.”

In the first half Sam Hanson, organist, rock musician, composer, improviser – oh, and pianist – was an effective soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 21. Of the many great virtues of his playing I was especially taken by his ability to let all the voices speak effectively. Even figurations with a mere accompanying function, or chords to progress the harmonic movement, these all spoke with more than their unadorned utility, which kept one’s interested riveted even in such an often heard work. He pounced upon the cadenzas in the first and last movement, well-rehearsed, perhaps a little too separate from the performance as a whole, but exciting nevertheless. Only in the Rondo did I feel that neither soloist nor orchestra had quite the measure of the lightness and brightness they would have been able to bring to the party had they been given another chance.

The church of St Aldhelm’s was filled with almost as many glittering Christmas trees as there were orchestral musicians, to which festive decoration the warm-hearted performance of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel overture added suitably seasonal music. And the place was packed with people privileged, like me, to hear for the first time Bruckner’s Symphony No. 0 in live performance!