The city of Darmstadt boasts a very fine orchestra, the Staatsorchester Darmstadt, which gives a series of concerts and operas in the splendid modern theatre (good acoustics, good sight-lines and comfortable seats), complementing the theatre’s offering of plays and chamber music recitals. To bring its 2016-17 season of symphony concerts to a close the orchestra, under General Music Director Will Humburg, gave a concert of three mighty works for large orchestra which attracted a large audience for a Sunday morning. 

The first piece was György Kurtág’s Stele, dating from 1994. The title is a Greek word referring to a funeral monument and the work is an elegy for the composer’s friend András Mihaly. The composer made various, sometimes inconsistent comments about Stele, amongst them a reference to someone lying wounded on the battlefield and seeing only the bright blue sky. The scholarly programme note pointed out allusions in the score of Stele to Beethoven, Wagner, Bruckner and Bartók, and it was clearly embedded in the Central European musical tradition, but no knowledge of the details was necessary to be drawn into this serious, moving, and indeed monumental work. From its slow, mysterious opening it was a gripping piece. The huge orchestra (ten percussionists, six flutes and so on) was used to create rich and intriguing sounds, often from unusual combinations of instruments. The beautiful, peaceful concluding section (perhaps referring to the bright blue sky) was particularly pleasing, but it ended rather abruptly. The audience, presumably unfamiliar with the piece, was unsure at first whether or not it had in fact finished and was surely hoping for more.

After Stele came something much more familiar from the standard orchestral repertoire: Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra based on (or rather “freely after”) Nietzsche’s philosophical novel. The sections of the piece refer to selected chapters of the book and seem to be a musical response to it rather than an attempt to translate Nietzsche’s ideas into music. The famous sunrise which opens the work was given a stunning performance. If the following “Von den Hinterweltlern” section was inevitably a little anticlimactic, the piece quickly recovered, and Humburg then led us through the contrasting lyrical, energetic and dance-like episodes as if telling a story and reaching a powerful conclusion – even though there is no plot as such to follow. The orchestra played with delicacy and power as required. The details of the instrumental solos came across clearly throughout. The prominent solo violin in the “Tanzlied” was played with verve by the orchestra’s leader.

After the interval came Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which in little over a century has gone from being a notorious piece of difficult modern music to a popular favourite. And yet this is still uncomfortable music. The opening bassoon solo is as spine-tingling as ever and the fierce and changing rhythms are still disturbing, as are the shrieks from the woodwind and aggressive calls from the brass. The pounding contributions of timpani and drums have a violence that has rarely been matched. Humburg ensured that the raw edges were not smoothed away in this performance. There was a fierce, uncompromising energy that thrilled the audience. We were reminded that the ballet was referred to as scenes from pagan Russia. As in the Strauss, the solo contributions were first rate.

Humburg’s conducting of all three pieces was exemplary, guiding the orchestra into producing very fine performances. All three works gave plentiful opportunities for the orchestral soloists to shine and they appeared to relish the opportunity. Humburg generously gave well-deserved individual bows to many players and to each section of the orchestra, both after Also sprach Zarathustra and at the end of the concert. All in all this was a very rewarding concert, making us look keenly forward to the next season.