Lang, D (The) Little Match Girl Passion
No one could accuse American composer David Lang of indulging himself in information overload. The fact his The Little Match Girl Passion is filled with the sound of bells notwithstanding, he’s just not a bells-and-whistles composer philosophically. He might belong to a generation celebrated for its embrace of music beyond the classical norm; however, Lang has puréed all the world’s music down to a handful of root gestures.
Whether that leaves you pro or con is a matter of taste. Personally I can take or leave much of Lang’s output, and The Little Match Girl Passion is typical of his approach: finely honed but dogged by a tendency to go through the correct motions, lest he offend. Commissioned by Carnegie Hall in 2007, Lang looked towards Bach’s St Matthew Passion as a model for setting Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy-tale, usurping Jesus with the tragic little girl to, as Lang puts it, “elevate her sorrow to a higher place”.
This performance is a triumph for Paul Hillier’s quartet of solo SATB voices, who articulate faultlessly while doubling on a miscellany of tintinnabulating percussion. But the one-dimensional character of Lang’s writing – you look for multi-layered contradiction, wit, chance in vain – becomes bothersome (apt comparison: Lachenmann’s opera on the same subject, Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern – a piece constructed on dialectical terms). The opening number explicitly evokes the atmosphere of Renaissance melancholy but is harmonically stagnant. When the harmony finally goes places in the fifth number my interest blossomed – but the law of diminishing returns soon reasserts itself.