It’s rare these days for symphony orchestras to play Bach, whose music has been unfairly monopolised by period instruments and chamber orchestras. Even rarer to hear it from a youth orchestra, whose programmes veer towards the big orchestral showpieces. For its Proms appearance this year, the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, under Swiss conductor Philippe Jordan, brought one such work in Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, but daringly prefaced it with one of Bach’s solo cantatas.

Philippe Jordan conducts the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester © BBC | Mark Allan
Philippe Jordan conducts the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester
© BBC | Mark Allan
The text of no.82, Ich habe genug (‘It is enough’), expresses a yearning for death as a release from life on earth, and baritone Christian Gerhaher charted its narrative from world-weariness to spiritual liberation with his characteristic sensitivity to the meaning of the words and with a broad range of vocal colour that never overstepped the limits of Baroque style. Pared down to just sixteen strings with organ, the accompanying ensemble made an intimate sound, if one that felt a bit lost in the space of the Royal Albert Hall, and the orchestra’s woodwind coach Bernhard Heinrichs brought poignancy and suavity to the obbligato oboe solos in the outer movements.

The sentiments of this cantata provided a touching link to the Bruckner, played after the interval. Here is a work, dedicated ‘to the dear Lord God’, that was destined to remain unfinished upon Bruckner’s death – three movements were completed and whatever sketches of a fourth had been penned were spirited away. Whether the composer’s own sense of his impending demise is represented in the music is a moot point, but one cannot deny that he saw it as a summation of his whole symphonic journey, and there’s a profundity, especially in the closing Adagio, that suggests a kind of farewell.

Compared with the small ensemble for the Bach, a further hundred players or so were crammed on to the stage for the Bruckner, with enough strings to give his soaring lines real substance. The orchestra, which brings together players from right across Europe twice a year for rehearsals and tours, is less a ‘youth’ orchestra than a post-graduate one – the age range is from 17 to 26, with most of them in the upper end and a number already contracted with major orchestras. As such, one sensed a maturity in the musicianship as well as technique that belied the irony of ‘youth’ dealing with a programme obsessed with the end of life.

Christian Gerhaher, Bernhard Heinrichs and Philippe Jordan © BBC | Mark Allan
Christian Gerhaher, Bernhard Heinrichs and Philippe Jordan
© BBC | Mark Allan
Philippe Jordan, who is music director of the Opéra de Paris, has made his name in the music of Wagner – he has just been announced as the conductor of the Bayreuth Festival’s new Meistersinger in 2017 – and there was a distinctly Wagnerian feel to his conducting of Bruckner. The orchestra was treated less as a giant organ – as Bruckner’s orchestration is often popularly perceived, with the pulling in and out of ‘stops’ governing changes in sound – but more as a single entity in a constant flux of timbral change and flexibility. There was a smoothness in the way solos emerged from the whole, and a natural, gradual scaling of heights as climaxes were approached.

This definitely wasn’t a performance for those who prefer their Bruckner with rough edges, yet it also showed that things can perhaps go too far in the other direction: a sleekness and suavity to the playing and to the shaping of phrases meant that the ultimate spiritual expressiveness was smoothed over and something of the music’s profundity was missing. Jordan’s careful pacing meant one could always sense something of the overall shape, however, and the playing in itself had beauty, power and élan.