Muffled up in a heavy coat, scarf and gloves, your intrepid reviewer travelled through the wild heart of the East End of London, from Whitechapel on the Overground, under the Thames to the equally rough and grubby realms of south-east London, to Brockley, making his way up the hill in the wintry darkness to St Peter's Church. What a contrast upon entering the church! All was brightness and clarity, beautiful architecture, and warmth – the very virtues that characterised the performance Lindsay Ryan elicited from Harmony Sinfonia in this very enjoyable concert.

It's always a risk, attending amateur performances. Anxious as one is to applaud their efforts, it can sometimes nevertheless be rapture modified by excruciating execution. So it was with some trepidation that I awaited the opening trenchant chords of Beethoven'sEgmont Overture in this ambitious programme. No worries! It became very quickly apparent that all would be well: not that the players weren't somewhat challenged by the demands the music made upon them, but that Lindsay Ryan had a clarity and expressiveness of gesture coupled with a clear idea of how the music should go which enabled the orchestra to give a performance that rose above their limitations was a joy to listen to. The introduction of this piece was courageously slow, the allegro stirring and heroic as it should be, with expressive playing from woodwinds, and the whole overture rounded off with impressive ensemble playing of those great thumping closing chords.

One might think that Elgar's Serenade for Strings was perhaps a step too far for a string band of varied abilities, but again Maestra Ryan was able to get from them a performance that was deeply moving regardless of its blemishes of execution. Much credit goes to the characterful and demonstrative playing of the leader, Paul Weymont, and the secure foundation provided by the lower strings who followed Ryan's flowing beat to perfection.

The most impressive thing about the interpretation of the Bruckner was the clarity of Lindsay Ryan's grasp of the overall form. This is not something one usually expects from such performances as this, so it was to her great credit that tempos were well chosen and consistently maintained, with no concessions to what might be easier to play, the great symphonic structure built up with purposeful momentum. The symphony abounds with glorious melodies and none of them was short-changed, and Bruckner's more folkish themes were played with an appropriate lilt – not always an easy thing for an amateur ensemble to achieve. The low brass were tremendous in the great chorale in the first movement development, and how splendidly the horns' blistering annunciation of the symphony's "motto" horn call at the end of the first movement rang around the stone walls of this attractive church. (The church hand been built at the same time as Bruckner embarked upon his career as a symphonist – the 1860s and 70s; the chancel is decorated with coloured tiles from Antwerp and gold mosaic from Ravenna, and the music suited it well.)

The cello and viola themes of the Andante were both very expressively handled – nothing sentimental but enough give and take for the music to speak – and the great brass climax was immensely powerful. The Scherzo, with all its multi-layered hunting calls, was played surprisingly fast and was very exciting, though the acoustic did no favours to the clarity of parts in the tutti; the woodwind's playing of the fetching little melody of the trio was superb. If I had any argument against Lindsay Ryan's tempo decisions, it would have been with the slowness of some parts of the second subject group in the Finale, though checking the score in the train on the way home I was reminded that it is peppered with ritardandos and instructions to go "noch langsamer" – "even slower" – so she was probably right – and courageous. It was a risk, but the movement held together. The great octave-drop tuttis of the main theme were spine-tinglingly delivered, and the whole symphony brought to a blazing close.

How do you award stars to such a performance? Well, you can't: obviously this was not the Vienna Philharmonic – Harmony Sinfonia have more women players, for one thing – but nevertheless it was a rewarding evening, not merely an entertainment for a cold December night, but a real performance that had its own measure of insight and heart-warming beauty, and well worth braving Brockley for the privilege of being part of the audience. Never in his wildest dreams could Bruckner have imagined that an amateur orchestra would be playing his symphony in a small London church, 130 years later. 

Harmony Sinfonia - The Romantics, at St Peter's Church, BrockleyKen Ward reviews Harmony Sinfonia, conductor Lindsay Ryan, play Bruckner in St Peter's Brockley