There was a memorial concert for Bryan Fairfax in East Finchley on 9 March 2014. He had died in January. Not only was he the conductor who introduced Mahler’s Symphony no. 3 to the UK, and who courageously conducted the world première of Havergal Brian’s massive Gothic Symphony, but it was he who organised the ground-breaking London Bruckner Festival of 1964, which has presented several Bruckner UK premières. The opening work of that festival was the Overture in G minor. Those who heard it then would have been unlikely, outside two performances at the Proms in 1976 and 1980, to have come across another performance in the fifty years that have elapsed since that concert.  So it was a rare privilege indeed to travel to Oxford to hear this performance by the Hertford Bruckner Orchestra.

Conductor Paul Coones’ programme note made several claims for the work’s prefiguring of aspects of Bruckner’s later symphonies and, indeed, the Overture opens with a dramatic unison octave drop suggestive of the climax of the opening theme of his Ninth, followed by a rising cello motive reminiscent of the glorious cello theme that opens the Seventh. Thereafter, there enters a bustling allegro moderato theme from the strings, soon supported by rhythmic interjections from woodwind. It was lightly played, though on its recurrences throughout the piece it seemed to become a little more moderato than allegro. Nevertheless, the work hung together well and the coda, introduced by an evocative solo horn playing a slowed-down version of the allegro theme, rose to a thoroughly Brucknerian blazing G major conclusion. It sounded very fine and, as in 1964, one was led to wonder why this work is not performed more often.

One splendid high point of the concert came in Wagner’s “Good Friday Music” from Parsifal, where the violins and violas created that unmistakable Parsifal sound, music as though “lit from within” as Debussy described it. The Hertford Bruckner Orchestra has no formal auditions, but “is always keen to welcome musically respectable new players”. Musical respectability is a broad church, not always entirely harmonious, but the violins are very ably and passionately led by Ben Cartlidge and Rachael Elliott, and in this music they assisted the orchestra to shine above one’s expectations. The oboe and clarinet solos rose magically through the springtime mists the strings had created, and at the end the audience demonstrated their entrancement by an extended silence before breaking into applause.

I’ve never before encountered a programme note for Beethoven’s Symphony no.7 in A major, or indeed any classical music concert, that has a whole page devoted to a discussion of the plateosaurus of the Triassic period! The programme cover, designed by principal cellist, Dr Vicky Arnold, has images by wildlife artist Maurice Wilson of these massive creatures crossing an imagined German desert. It is the conductor’s fancy that Beethoven’s second movement, described by Anthony Hopkins to have the effect “as of a grand procession passing”, takes us to a pre-human world, with the stately ambling of massive prehistoric animals and a beauty contemplated from afar. In the event, the performance did not lumber, but proceeded at a sober allegretto, and had all that indescribable mixture of melancholy, heroism and fortitude that has made it one of Beethoven’s most popular movements.

The opening introduction of the symphony’s first movement, sounded a little uneasy, but inexorably gained power, the repeated sustained chords and demi-semiquavers on the woodwind sounding increasingly ominous, until the skies cleared with the jaunty vivace - the flutes playing excellently, as they did throughout the concert. The tempo chosen was obviously such as the conductor envisaged the orchestra could cope with, it was not particularly fast, more Klemperer than Norrington in the outer movements, and having read in the programme that all repeats would be observed I settled in for the long haul.  But in fact, come the repeat of the vivace exposition, the orchestra played better, and the movement came increasingly to life such that the audience, defying convention and the ecclesiastical setting, broke into applause at its close.

Once the plateosaurus had wandered off, the Scherzo was performed with some gusto, the Trio maintaining a decent speed - nothing of Klemperer here - but with the Finale I felt that Dr Coones might have risked something a bit faster, that stretched his players a little more. It would have been a risk - but then, it needs to be. It’s Beethoven at his rollicking wildest, and we might all expect to be a little bruised at the end of it. Nevertheless, it was pretty exciting stuff, and hearing this symphony played by a non-professional orchestra of players of varying abilities has the strange effect of throwing unusual aspects of the work into stronger relief, bringing out powerfully what an extraordinary, unprecedented and thereafter unparalleled work it is. As I caught the night coach back to the metropolis, my head was still awhirl with it all, and the sheer joy of hearing and seeing a bunch of the “musically respectable” make the best they could of it.