The refurbishment of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, has been completed and it is now, once again, a glorious concert venue, well suited to the performance of a Bruckner symphony. The audience sit in the nave, the orchestra in front of them with the substantial stone organ screen that separates the nave from the chancel as an evocative backdrop. The screen provided one of the great dramatic moments of this performance when a stern, ghostly figure arose in the darkness of the arches beneath the organ and stepped slowly forward into the light, raised his arms aloft and delivered the mighty cymbal clash that crowns the climax of the Adagio, indeed the climax of the symphony, and then stepped back into the dark never to be heard from again.

One might think that Dr Coones’ legendary devotion to the music of Anton Bruckner had been well enough served by founding, conducting and managing an orchestra bearing the composer’s name, with the principal aim of performing Bruckner’s symphonies. But on display this evening for the first time was a brand new quartet of Wagner tubas that Dr Coones had acquired to facilitate the performance of the Bruckner’s last three symphonies without the attendant problems of tuba hire. Following that spectral cymbal clash, the Wagner tubas embark upon the most sonorous of dirges, one that mourns the death of Wagner that took place during the period of the symphony’s composition. The performers did full justice to their shining new instruments, glorious playing providing a paragraph of outstanding beauty and deeply-felt sorrow. In this they followed the earlier example of the strings whose contribution, as one might expect from an amateur orchestra with no formal auditions, was of uneven quality – but in this Adagio, in the continuation of the opening theme, they played with such sweetness and fullness of tone that one quite forgot that one was not in the presence of a top-rank professional orchestra.

Dr Coones favours a slow tempo for the first movement, and indeed it began somewhat lugubriously, an air of oppressive melancholy hanging over the themes. But as the movement progressed it felt as if the quality of Bruckner’s music began to heal the sorrow, and something brighter and more majestic came to life. The very slowly played final paragraph of the first movement’s coda was majesty itself, the brass shining out above the sustained woodwind and low strings and excited violin figurations, the Wagner tubas warming up in the midst of it all. Warmed-up they needed to be for they open the second movement for three bars of one of Bruckner’s most grief-stricken melodies, but then give way to passionate affirmation from the strings, a rising three-note motif Bruckner also used in his Te Deum. It was all splendidly done, and the movement progressed to its great climax, the feverish violin semiquaver scale and arpeggio accompaniment led with passion and exactitude by the orchestra’s leader, Ben Cartlidge.

Once the brassy Scherzo got into its stride it was as bright and rumbustious as one could wish, and the strings gave a touching rendition of the Trio, creating tender and affectingly phrased music, an achievement they were to repeat with the Finale’s chorale-like second theme. In the notes Dr Coones provided for the orchestra, he writes: “Big slow coda ... and a long crescendo towards a triumphant return – at last – to the tonic key of E major.” And it was a triumph: they’d made it!

Thereafter we had a joyful and spirited performance of the prelude to The Meistersingers of Nuremberg. Readers will be pleased to learn that the cymbal-player did in fact reappear for this, several times, the brass came in on cue (which, unfortunately unforgettably, those of two famous orchestras once failed to do for Kurt Masur), the infectious contrapuntal display was handled with marvellous clarity, and the performance rounded off the concert on a note of grand, but humane, communal joy.

The Hertford Bruckner Orchestra has been going now since their performance of Bruckner’s Symphony no. 3 in 2000. Since then they have performed symphonies nos. 4, 5, 7, 8 (review here and 9, some of those more than once, with works by other composers, including Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Mahler. As Dr Coones writes in the programme note: “The ultimate objective of HBO is to produce a faithful performance of a musical masterpiece: one which does justice to the composer, fulfils its duty to the audience, and succeeds in giving the participants the enjoyment, thrill, and satisfaction that come from having given their all and played above themselves on the night.” I can report that the duty to the audience was fulfilled magnificently this evening: for us, it was a tremendous concert.