German bombast. French joie de vivre. Russian soul-searching. You could hardly ask for more contrast in the principal themes of last night’s Prom, with Philippe Jordan conducting the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, from the military pomp of Wagner’s overture to Rienzi to the fairground whirl of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet
Jean-Yves Thibaudet

Although Rienzi was Wagner’s first operatic success, even staunch Wagnerians don’t have much place for it in their hearts, and listening to its overture feels more like a historical curiosity than anything else. You can hear the beginnings of several orchestral mannerisms that were to mark his later output – I particularly noted a mezzo piano phrase for the entire horn, brass and woodwind section as the strings played a soaring melody – but the music failed to hold my attention for long.

Listening to Jean-Yves Thibaudet playing Ravel has always been a joy: he has been a Ravel expert since very early in his career and his 1991 set of Ravel’s complete solo piano music are one of my best loved CDs. This performance did not disappoint. Thibaudet has a remarkable ability to make every phrase flow with a feeling of continuity through myriad changes of pace and articulation. The opening of the slow second movement is a passage over which Ravel slaved to achieve a Mozartian lyricism: Thibaudet was exquisite (as was the GMYO’s principal flautist, one of the stars of the evening). But there was almost as much of a cantabile feel in the fairground-style and blues-inflected music of the first movement, and in the quicksilver runs of the third: Thibaudet makes the music sing even in a staccato run.

Thibaudet also treated us to a delicious encore: Philippe Jordan joined him at the piano to play The enchanted garden from Ravel’s Mother Goose suite – three minutes of pure escapist delight.

It’s well known that Shostakovich wrote the Symphony no. 5 in D minor under the threat of death at the hands of Stalinist police, but perhaps we should care less about that historical background and concentrate more on the virtues of the work itself. From the outset, Shostakovich grabs you by the hand and takes you on a journey through his consciousness, by turns contemplative, nervous, delicate, despairing, manic, joyous. The sense of progression is palpable: you have no idea at any point where the music is going – and as soon as you think you know, the direction is likely to shift – but you feel utterly secure in the hand that guides you. Only in the fourth movement do you begin to doubt, when you can't quite tell if the upbeat music is genuinely cheerful or bitterly ironic.

Anyone who knows this symphony well will have their own favourite points in the journey. I particularly love the times in the first movement where the beautiful contemplative string passages give way to moments of rapture, to be interrupted by staccato cello and bass notes introducing moments of worry and tension; most of all, I love the demonic, sarcastic waltz of the second movement: a truer dance with the devil was never written.

I don’t know whether it’s fair to judge the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra by the same standards as the top senior orchestras who play at the Proms. Compared to any normal youth orchestra, they were outstanding. Compared to the very best senior orchestras, the first half performance fell short in a number of ways. Partly, it was a question of errors of detail – not many, but enough to matter. Ravel’s music leaves soloists fearfully exposed: the slightest of inaccuracies in a brass entry or a percussion hit will diminish the overall effect. More, it was a case of missed opportunity: you can’t fault Jordan on tempi or on keeping the orchestra organised, but the performances of both the Wagner and the Ravel lacked bite.

On the credit side, this was a very clean performance. In a hall where the acoustics always threatens to turn orchestral sound to mush, you could hear every note, and this served the Shostakovich particularly well. Jordan conducted with a good sense of pacing and dynamics, resulting in a thoroughly creditable rendering. I didn’t leave the hall as emotionally drained as is possible from the best performances of this symphony, but I was still very satisfied from hearing a quality performance of a truly great piece of music.