The Fulham Camerata is a wonderfully inclusive group that mixes professionals, semi-professionals and keen amateurs - recruited without audition and receiving support and training from the professionals. The quality of their singing, on the evidence of last night’s concert, is first rate, and the sheer fullness of tone and response to dynamics in Bruckner’s motet Os Justi was quite glorious. When they reached the close, with its deep silences encompassing two beautifully shaped ‘Hallelujahs' you felt the certainty of Bruckner’s faith: ‘The law of God is in his heart and his steps shall not falter’. This was the central piece in a set of three Bruckner motets, sung between Locus iste and Christus factus est, and the performance of all three was of the highest standard of colour, balance and expressiveness.

© Fulham Symphony Orchestra
© Fulham Symphony Orchestra

Following the Bruckner was the première of a piece by Alexander Campkin, Fulham Camerata’s composer-in-residence, for which a string orchestra and the choir distributed themselves in the aisles to either side of the audience, the conductor facing the audience and three soloists behind him, and to start with they sang Bach’s chorale setting of Jesu, meine Freude. The audience found themselves embraced by a warm and inspiring sound, and then the Bach was transformed as though being played very slowly with a foot on the sustaining pedal, great long pedal notes and dissonances slowly piled up in great waves. Dissonant, but never threatening, the pedals ensured a sense of timeless, if uneasy, stability, and it was throughout a wonderful sound. This was an immediately effective piece, and come the end one was left questioning the ways in which it might be possible to sing of ‘Jesus, my joy..’ in the 21st century.

The choral first half was framed by two pieces by Heinrich Schutz. The lively Cantate Domino appropriately opened - ‘Sing to the Lord a new song’ - and the choir finished its contribution with Selig sind die Toten (‘Blessed are the dead’). Although well sung, this, I felt, would have benefited from stronger characterisation, more peace in ‘Sie ruhen…’ ('They rest from their labours') and more confidence in ‘their works follow after them’. Its meditation on death and faith made a well thought-out preparation for the second half of the concert.

The players of the Fulham Symphony Orchestra are not afraid of big works. Their next concert will be Mahler’s massive Sixth Symphony, and back in 2005 they courageously performed Bruckner’s Ninth with the world première of the 2005 edition of the completed Finale (by Samale, Philips, Mazucca and Cohrs). The orchestra, under the direction of Marc Dooley, has improved immensely since that time and they provided a concert which gave you everything you might hope for from a non-professional performance. You don’t expect the playing to be superlative, but you pray that it won’t be excruciating, and you hope to hear enjoyment, commitment, freshness and enthusiasm. The Fulham Symphony Orchestra delivered all of these - and a quite wonderful performance of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony to boot. It has to be said that it was never quiet, but loud and trenchant throughout, and this is not entirely on account of the St John’s acoustic: from the grim, heavy presentation of the opening theme, through to the trumpets’ blaring ‘Annunciation of Death’ at the climax of the first movement, Maestro Dooley charted a path of uncompromising honesty. This was not a performance to linger over softer, lyrical passages, but rather to proceed with passion, come what may - and what did come was a perfect close to the first movement that few conductors seem to have the courage to face: Bruckner described it as being like the clock ticking in the death chamber, and Dooley kept a metronomic pace right to the end, no slight ritardando or diminuendo to finish, but just the clock ticking as life steals away. That alone made this performance worth hearing!

The Scherzo was quick but weighty, stomping through Bruckner’s brassy portrayal of the rascal figure, der deutscher Michel, (the German Michael, a distant relative of whose might be the English John Bull), and the dreamy Trio, with its distant trumpet fanfares and visionary harps, was played at a wonderfully flowing tempo. In many performances it becomes already a slow movement, pre-empting the one to come, but here it was well up to speed, and all the more effective for that: it was a joy to hear it played at this tempo. The great Adagio, consistent with the whole interpretation, was never a place of peace and prayer, but one of seething and unsettled passion. The rugged sound of the strings worked well here, and Dooley’s control of the form was such that the orchestra delivered a cymbal-capped climax of tremendous power, followed by a coda that did not linger, and indeed, with confident playing from the quartet of Wagner tubas, was never very quiet - but just managed a hint of peace in its last few phrases.

The Finale stormed in with the brass, throughout magnificent, here in their element. Dooley chose a fairly quick tempo, and at times it was a white-knuckle ride on Bruckner’s galloping Cossacks, hoping we’d all reach the destination at the same time. The second theme group was particularly warmly played by the strings, and the movement worked its way through its kaleidoscope of dramatic incident, ultimately delivering the closing apotheosis that somehow had always been promised from the opening, well over an hour before. Perhaps a little greater control of dynamics would have allowed this moment to be even more special, rather than just another in a whole series of loud and shattering climaxes, but altogether this was a terrific performance by splendid band, whose abilities had allowed the conductor space for a considered interpretation of great integrity and power.