Little Match Girl Passion
A restrained and moving performance from I Fagiolini
There’s a fine line between the artless and the half-baked. In this UK premiere of David Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion puppeteer Martin Roberts’s naïvely animated snowy street scenes and tiny shadow puppets made the perfect visual accompaniment. Somehow the jerky movements and fragile, child-like silhouettes served to intensify the spiritual force of Lang’s restrained but rigorously woven vocal music. Andersen’s bleak tale of the match girl who freezes to death on the last night of the year is sung by four voices, with icy glints of percussion.
Andersen’s narrative is interleaved with arias and chorales, using translations from the St Matthew Passion; the music’s spare, chiming patina shows the influence of Reich, but has an inward drive all its own. Lang has written that it was the balance of opposites that attracted him to the story, not its plot: the girl’s sweetness against her father’s cruelty; her loving memories against her desolate demise. There’s a warmth and solidity to the harmonies when she joins her Grandmother in death and keening dissonance during her desperate visions of food and warmth. Stuttering, repeated words brilliantly conveyed the encroaching ice and her gradually strengthening resolve.
It’s a tale that felt all-too close at hand in Shoreditch church, itself in a state of damp and disrepair, standing in streets where people are sleeping rough.
But if the evening fell just on the right side of artlessness, one was also aware of the knife-edge performers and venues are on these days. Funding is scarce, ways have to be found to present music on a shoe-string. In the first half of the concert, a bold array of Praetorius, Aichinger and Bach, the five-strong I Fagiolini could have done with more of their regular voices, and would have benefited more from Hollingworth’s direction than his vocal contribution. At times the fiendishly complex motet Jesu meine Freude wavered. The seasonal music sung in Danish – a clever way into Andersen’s tale – glowed, and Lang’s Passion was superbly rendered, but the puppeteer seemed in need of another pair of hands, as he struggled to synchronise his scenes with the music.
Spitalfields Music has a fine tradition of pulling off memorable events with the bare necessities, but an organisation of such vision and professionalism – not to mention the halo of learning projects radiating from it – needs a bigger budget.
The 'Little Match Girl Passion' will be performed on 21 December at Warwick Arts Centre