The city of Darmstadt is blessed with a theatre that sustains a wide-ranging repertoire of first-class drama, opera and concerts, and the cross-fertilisation of music and theatre was apparent this evening: the concert commenced with a moment of splendid theatricality. The auditorium darkened, the audience fell silent and the curtain slowly rose to reveal in blazing stage lighting the massed choirs and orchestras of Darmstadt, from three mandolins far left to nine double basses far right, an enormous orchestra crammed in between them, the choirs standing behind filling every available space upstage. And then the children’s choirs filed in left and right, taking their places on extended wings of the stage, and finally seven soloists and the conductor took up their positions front of stage. It was an awe-inspiring sight before even a note had been played!

Martin Lukas Meister with the orchestra and choruses in rehearsal © Barbara Aumüller
Martin Lukas Meister with the orchestra and choruses in rehearsal
© Barbara Aumüller

Conductor Martin Lukas Meister gave a short speech about the genesis of the performance and the contribution of all the volunteers from the citizens and ensembles of Darmstadt who had come together to create this event, before he turned to face the enormous forces ranged before him and with a stroke of his baton launched this immense choral symphony on its way.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the opening paragraph did not at first live up to the promise of the visual spectacle – it seemed not loud and energetic enough, too much sound lost somewhere backstage – but as the movement progressed it grew steadily in power, and, come the contrapuntal tour de force that constitutes the heart of the development, the performance had acquired all the strenuous vitality and momentum necessary to triumphantly achieve the E flat major restatement of the opening “Veni Creator Spiritus” with ecstatic power. This movement is a paean to passionate creative activity, to that eternal striving that will be the agent of Faust’s redemption in Part 2 of Goethe’s poetic drama, and of the symphony. Occasionally the choirs’ enthusiasm was at the expense of their intonation, but it mattered little because they and the orchestras, together with a very strong septet of soloists drawn from the Darmstadt Opera, were magnificent in their incarnation of this blazingly optimistic conception.

One element of Meister’s success in guiding his performers through this immensely complex and lengthy score was a very judicious choice of tempo, which ensured the unity of the structure was never in danger of falling apart, the performance never lost its way through unnecessary exaggeration, and the singers, even to the smallest child, were always there when cued-in (or at least, they would have been, were it not for the unreasonable requirement that the children stand chairless for the full 75 mins, which led to much rather distracting coming and going as their infant constitutions became overwrought). His tempo for the opening of Part 2 was especially effective – nothing too slow and sentimental, but a proper sound picture of the wild, rocky landscape in which the final scene of Faust commences. Oleksandr Prytolyuk and Thomas Mehnert sang wonderfully, with full dramatic passion, their roles as Pater Ecstaticus and Pater Profundis. Margaret Rose Koenn had left the stage after Part 1 to rise to higher spheres as Mater Gloriosa in Part 2 (in which role her voice rang out bell-like from the gallery across the auditorium), to be replaced by the eighth soloist, Susanne Serfling, in the second soprano role as “a penitent once called Gretchen”, where her expressive lyricism and most beautiful voice went straight to the heart, and come the moment where two sopranos (the other being Julie Davies) sing of the Eternal Feminine, drawing us ever upward, there were tears streaming down my cheeks. The piercing tenor of Lasse Penttinen had cut through the welter of sound to command us all to gaze upwards, and then out of the silence the final chorus – obviously very well rehearsed by all the chorusmasters involved – arose, wonderfully uplifting and totally shattering. And it had us all on our feet for a standing ovation.

After these ecstatic Mahler endings, such as in the “Resurrection Symphony” and this “Symphony of a Thousand”, once the clamour and emotion has died away, I am often left wondering to myself, “What was that all about?” Well, there are many purposes to which music can be put, and on this occasion it was that of a grand civic celebration, to show, as the conductor said, what Darmstadt can do. The concert was advertised as an extra concert to the season, “a concert in Darmstadt, for Darmstadt by Darmstadtians”, in which the musicians of the Staatsorchester were joined by lay performers from Darmstadt and the surrounding area. It is a small city of about 150,000 inhabitants and yet it was able to mount this magnificent performance of Mahler’s greatest (at least, in terms of size) symphony – it’s an achievement of which few similar-sized communities could even dream, and of which the Staatstheater Darmstadt and the city can justly be proud.