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Little Match Girl Passion

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David Lang, The Little Match Girl Passion (inter alia), Theater of Voices, Ars Nova Copenhagen, P. Hillier

(re-released on June 9, 2009)
Harmonia Mundi HMU 807496
The New Music at Carnegie Hall project commissioned David Lang to compose a work for Paul Hillier's vocal chamber ensemble Theater of Voices. A regular with the Bang on a Can collective, Lang began with an ingenious idea for a text to inspire a substantial and almost exclusively vocal composition (the four singers also play a few percussion instruments that are sparsely added to the texture), overlaying the story drawn from Hans Christian Andersen's Den lille Pige med Svovlstikkerne (The Little Match Girl, trans. Jean Hersholt) with the crowd and congregational responses of Bach's Saint Matthew Passion. The result, The Little Match Girl Passion, is something like a musical version of the Isenheim Altarpiece, a work of art that somehow joins the anguished misery of human existence -- the heartless, pointless death of a poor little girl on a Danish street on a cold New Year's Eve (and by extension, our existence, all of us) -- to the suffering of Christ and thus to the sublime mystery of God's mercy.

In one sense, the musical ideas behind the piece, which happened to win the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Music, are hardly new, a set of procedures that have lined the coffers of the purveyors of Holy Minimalism for years. A simple melodic line is repeated in chant-like meditation, other notes are held like drones, lines are overlapped to form clusters, structures are juxtaposed with themselves to create harmonic and rhythmic dissonance, triads shimmer forth from more barren or clashing sounds. To prove the point, conductor Paul Hillier included in this disc a few other examples of David Lang's sacred choral pieces, which although lovely enough, do not make anywhere near the same impression as Match Girl. The difference does not lie with the performances, stunningly beautiful and thoughtful renditions by Hillier's chamber choir Ars Nova Copenhagen. These pieces seem to keep thoughts of the eternal at arm's length, with their deconstructive approach to the sacred texts they set. Match Girl, by contrast, weaves a mesmerizing spell for the 35 minutes of this performance, because like the Andersen story it embraces both the small and large issues of human existence. The performance of four singers from Hillier's select group Theater of Voices, known for excellent work like their memorable recording of Stockhausen's Stimmung two years ago, is faultless and compelling.


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