Review: Adam Fischer conducts the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in Mahler 4 with Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha

The OAE opened their Mahler 4 concert with conductor Adam Fischer with the adagietto from Mahler’s 5th symphony. Daring, in some respects, to begin proceedings with such poignancy. What they created was both stillness and tension. An opportunity for us in the audience to focus. 

Des Knaben Wunderhorn wasn’t without its difficulties initially. The balance between Orchestra and soloist Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha wasn’t entirely spot on; sometimes it felt like the soprano was having to compete to be heard in Trompeten blasen.

A similar approach was taken to the second half, Fischer preparing us for Mahler 4 with a heartfelt recollection of being a kid sheltering in a bunker during the Hungarian uprising and an exquisite performance of Bach’s ‘Air on a G string’.

Adam Fischer speaks at the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment concert at Royal Festival Hall, 8 March 2022

I hear most Mahler symphonies live as a kind of theatre played out by musical instruments – a three-dimensional treat for the ears. An immersive experience (forgive the overused and often misused phrase). In Mahler’s 4th I start in a pastoral setting after which things slowly start to disintegrate in a mildly macabre way. 

The third movement adagio was breathtaking – poignant in its delicacy. A much-needed musical articulation of both hope and defiance. Soul enriching stuff. Come the final movement and the reappearance of soprano Masabane, all balance issues had been ironed out. 

Conductor Adam Fischer – charming, generous, and inclusive – came alive in the symphony, signaling his appreciation to the audience at every opportunity. 

I think it’s been filmed for the OAE’s catch-up service, which presumably means it will be on Marquee TV at some point. 

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment Marquee TV co-production of Bach’s St John Passion is a must-see

I’m never considered myself a Christian. Nor religious. At best I might consider myself spiritual. But, this Easter weekend, listening to the music of Bach, I’m beginning to question. Sort of.

First, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s Bach St John with Mark Padmore (£7 via OAE Player).

Helen Charleston and Gerald Finley. Eye-catching. A story told by musicians to musicians watched by an isolating and isolated audience. To create such a digital theatrical statement that lasts over two hours and make its message linger twenty four hours later is a quite some achievement. 

Part of that success is down to the direction (and Padmore’s vision) whereby chorus and soloists perform to the musicians who accompany them. All who feature in shot are cast members making the viewer a silent participant in proceedings. It is because of the striking visual direction that the audience experiences something so unexpectedly immersive throughout.

Gerald Finley

Of course, the direction wouldn’t have impact if the material didn’t inspire so. But, it is because of a unique set of events – a perceived collective sense of isolation and the pernicious ongoing low-level stress that promotes a sense of fear about what life will be like beyond June of this year – that such a story told through the mastery of Bach’s music, that the story not only maintains attention, but demands the redemption found on Easter Sunday. 

Here’s the thing: I know St John Passion well. I’ve listened to it endlessly over the years. But I’ve never felt it. I’ve never experienced the spiritual message in this music until now. And what it took was a part-cinematic part-theatrical digital experience created and distributed amid a global pandemic for me to finally get it.  

St John Passion experienced in amongst the busy lifestyle is a mere performance. This digital stream with its powerful visual storytelling has done much to shape Easter 2021 for me.

Watch the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s 2021 production of St John Passion featuring Mark Padmore and Gerald Finley