David Lang's the little match girl passion, for vocal quartet doubling on percussion instruments, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008. It's a strong, striking piece with a surprisingly potent emotional punch. Part of its effectiveness derives from the story itself, which is so achingly poignant that it can hardly fail to raise a lump in the throat. The text is primarily compiled from the story by Hans Christian Andersen and from familiar sections from Bach's St. Matthew Passion, which sound fresh and new in English translation. Lang's clear-eyed avoidance of sentimentality saves the story from the bathos into which it could easily sink in a less skillful musical setting. Several movements have a trademark minimalist sound surface, whose repetitions (rarely literal here; Lang is a master of subtle rhythmic and melodic shifts) can drive home a point with stark power. The movements share a melodic simplicity that gives them the immediacy of plainchant, but the insistent repetitions, irregular overlapping polyphonic lines, and clashing harmonies mark this as a modern, even innovative work. Part of its genius lies in Lang's ability to create music that sounds archaic and universal, and at the same time entirely contemporary. The performance by Paul Hillier's four-member Theatre of Voices is nothing less than astounding in its purity, clarity, precision, and warm blend. The music creates a mood of simple directness, but it makes technically outrageous demands on the performers, and it's a testimony to the singers' virtuosity that they make it sound spontaneous and effortless. The CD is filled out with four a cappella works admirably performed by Ars Nova Copenhagen. The harmonic stasis and repetitions that characterize these works make them more conventionally minimalist, and as a group they make less of an impact than the featured work. The most persuasive is evening morning day, a setting of the first creation story in Genesis, in which Lang sets only the nouns (although the omits the name of God, and sneaks in a few adjectives.) Using this small set of words, he plays with listeners' musical expectations, as verbal patterns emerge and subtly evolve through the progression of the narrative. The sound of the SACD is vibrant, present, and life-like, particularly in the little match girl passion. Highly recommended for fans of new music.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Eddins
|The Little Match Girl Passion, for chorus|