There’s something of the naughty schoolboy about Ádám Fischer. His impish grin suggests that he’s just been caught with his hand in the biscuit barrel. The sleeves of his jacket are on the long side, leaving his hands engulfed in his cuffs. You get the feeling that if a teacher inspected those hands, his fingers would be stained with ink, which he would doubtless have smeared all over dog-eared scores (not that he used any last night). There was a childlike sense of delight in this all-Mahler concert with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment that was infectious. 

Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha and Ádám Fischer
© The OAE

The OAE are not novices when it comes to Mahler. It was two decades ago that Sir Roger Norrington – who else? – led the period instrument expedition into Mahlerian territory, performing the First Symphony in one of his “Experience” weekends, revelatory listening. And more recently, Vladimir Jurowski tackled the “Resurrection” Symphony. Here, Fischer conducted the Fourth, the most lightly scored of the symphonies – only four horns and three trumpets make up the brass section – and the most compact. 

The jaunty jogtrot of the opening sleigh bells indicated that Fischer wasn’t going to dally. His conducting style looks aggressive, shoulders hunched, slashing his baton horizontally, sometimes held by both hands as if wielding an axe. But the beaming smile on his face told a different story, soaking in sounds conjured up by this period instrument band. Woodwinds were certainly on the fruity side, particularly the ripe clarinets, occasionally raising their bells, the oboes a touch citrussy. Gut strings – antiphonal violins – played with little vibrato and allowed those woodwind contributions to be heard, although a little more warmth would have been welcome. Cellos and double basses felt wiry rather than resonant. The pungent earthiness of the OAE’s playing matched Fischer’s characterful approach, a bit ragged around the edges but full of heart, a cheeky grin matched by a cheeky portamento. Leader Matthew Truscott tucked into the “Freund Hein” solos on the scordatura violin with relish. The climax of the slow movement felt suitably joyous, even if the trumpets smeared the gateposts on arriving in heaven. 

I wish Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha had shared Fischer’s childlike sense of wonder in Das himmlische Leben, the Wunderhorn song that closes the symphony. Her vocal line was well sculpted, but revelry in heavenly pleasures felt limited. The South African soprano was more animated in Rheinlegendchen, the third of three songs also from Des Knaben Wunderhorn before the interval. Rangwanasha has a lovely, rich tone but reined it in too much, often smothered by the orchestra. Detention for whoever decided not to include the song texts and translations in the printed programme. 

The most beautiful playing of the evening came at the very start, the Larghetto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, not taken at a mawkish wallow, but flowing like a mountain spring, fresh and pure.