The Little Match Girl Passion

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LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: The Little Match Girl Passion; For Love is Strong; Evening Morning Day; I Lie; Again (After Ecclesiastes)
PERFORMER: Ars Nova Copenhagen; Theatre of Voices/Paul Hillier

As a child I was deeply upset by Andersen’s tale of the match girl, and still find scant comfort in the supposedly-redemptive ending. Lang, co-founder of the New York contemporary music organisation, Bang on a Can, won a 2008 Pulitzer Prize for this setting of excerpts from Andersen’s story and other sources, including St Matthew’s gospel.
The juxtaposition of texts draws parallels between the girl’s suffering and that of Jesus. The music is appropriately bleak yet austerely beautiful and compassionate. Lang’s artistic voice and diction are very individual, but his writing is rich in subtle echoes, from Leonin and Perotin to Pärt and Meredith Monk. Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices, playing sparse percussion parts as well as singing, is typically impressive.
For the other works Ars Nova take over. The larger forces impart a somewhat warmer feel, but the character of the music is not so different. The next three pieces, especially For Love is Strong, are similar to the Passion in the way chanted, almost spoken, fragmentary phrases are set against long, legato lines, again often evoking late medieval/early Renaissance music.
Again is more thoroughly melismatic, with phrases that float down as gently as feathers. All the pieces haunt you long after the CD has ended. Barry Witherden