The Hertford Bruckner Orchestra is really quite an extraordinary phenomenon. It is an ensemble of mainly amateur musicians, centred round Hertford College, Oxford but involving players from the University, the city and elsewhere in the UK – founded principally to perform the symphonies of Anton Bruckner! His symphonies are rarely played outside the professional circuit, so the HBO welcomes anyone who wishes to take part in the uncommon opportunity to perform a Bruckner symphony. There are no formal auditions, the orchestra being keen to welcome “musically respectable new players” – as the note in the programme announces. As a consequence, attending their performances can be a little risky for the standard of playing can be very variable, but the experience is always wonderfully uplifting, and last year’s performances of Bruckner’s Ninth and this year’s performance of the Eighth displayed a standard of execution that at times was very fine indeed.

Behind this project, and in front of the orchestra, stands Dr Paul Coones, a Fellow of Hertford College, and from him flow the humble generosity and sincere dedication displayed by these concerts. Given that he is not a professional conductor and that the orchestra not a professional orchestra, his conducting necessarily restricts itself to essential information, clearly setting the tempo at each key point, giving cues, and signifying rehearsal letters in the score by a large vertical scything gesture so that at least at those points everyone knows where they are. Published in the programme are his extensive notes to the orchestra, a mixture of analysis and interpretative admonition, such as this from the latter stages of the finale:

… but at [rehearsal letter] Ss, what should tear into it, but the theme from the first movement, ff in the brass (b.652). This is a huge moment in the symphony: respond accordingly! The route to C is through an underpinning of this passage on the dominant, G. The coda begins at Uu, and is dark, mysterious, slower. (There is a General Pause bar immediately before Uu, in which to set the tempo, still in 2, but a very slow one.) Violins, make the quavers slow and even, and for heaven’s sake, do not be tempted to rush! Second tenor Wagner Tuba from b. 689 must be prominent.

From this one gets an unusual insight into how the performance was rehearsed and constructed.

It would be futile to pretend that there were no mishaps and difficult moments, but Dr Coones’ clear beat brought everything together and the symphony came over extremely powerfully. Certain aspects were very well done, in a way that is often not apparent in performances by more celebrated ensembles. One thing that particularly impressed me was the handling of tempi in the Finale, where the storming first theme was slow, and the following gentle second theme much quicker than usual, with the third theme returning to the main tempo set at the beginning. Dr. Coones had taken advice here from the American Bruckner scholar, Prof. William Carragan, and it helped make the Finale structure particularly strong – even though the tiredness of the players took its toll towards the end in what was, together with rehearsal, the second time they had played the enormous work in a day. Other interpretative gems were the close of the first movement – Bruckner’s ‘ticking clock’ keeping good time, without the sentimental rit. and diminuendo that many conductors cannot resist – and the end of the whole symphony, where the closing two semiquavers and crotchet descended with the finality of a guillotine, bringing the triumphant overlay of themes of all four movements to a shattering close. In the first climax of the first movement development, where the jagged main theme is played against the duplet-triplets of the second theme, the orchestra rose to the occasion superbly, as it did in the Scherzo repeat – and the strings’ descending chorale-like sequences in the Adagio and Finale were heavenly. Also worthy of mention were the horns and Wagner tubas – well, no performance of a late Bruckner symphony could be contemplated without a decent horn section, and this was certainly more than merely decent.

Once it was over one couldn’t be other than amazed at the orchestra’s courage and the level of its achievement, and grateful to have heard this mighty symphony played with such obvious commitment and enthusiasm.