*** DEBUG START ***
*** DEBUG END ***

The match girl and the cross

by
25 January 2013

Roderic Dunnett hears a work based on Hans Christian Andersen

iStock

WE OWE to the ever-inventive vocal group I Fagiolini, conducted by Robert Hollingworth, the recent beautiful recording (Decca 478 2734) of the 40-part Mass Ecco sì beato giorno by Alessandro Striggio (c.1536-1592), born in Mantua, court musician to the de' Medici in Florence. Striggio's son supplied the libretto for Monteverdi's opera Orfeo.

I Fagiolini were fresh and original as ever when they presented live performances of a Pulitzer Prize-winning score by the American composer David Lang (b.1957) at St Leonard's, Shoreditch, in the Shoreditch Winter Festival; and subsequently in Leeds and at Warwick University Arts Centre.

The basis of this piece, The Little Match Girl Passion, is a famous story by Hans Christian Andersen, as shocking as it is touching. Yet the ghastly morality tales of Andersen or the Brothers Grimm never horrify children in the way they do adults, Hollingworth points out.

This tragic tale, which culminates in the girl's freezing to death amid an unfeeling populace, is seen by Lang as a metaphor for Christ's death on the cross. He makes of it a four-part vocal sequence, in which the singers also play a range of aptly haunting percussion.

There are concealed, or transfigured, Bach allusions in the score; and it was music by Bach and his Renaissance predecessors which made up the first half of the concert. Heralding Bach's motet Jesu, meine Freude - a work that Hollingworth remembers, as a boy, thinking "dull and long", and that was a little ponderous here, too - were a deliberately bald reading of Praetorius's Ein feste Burg arrangement, as if to represent Lutheranism at its most severe, offset by a delicate treatment, with solo voices, of the same composer's Es ist ein' Ros' entsprungen. In this, Hollingworth's own contribution (on the alto part) was particularly plaintive, and the ensuing bass solo (Jimmy Holliday) was outstanding.

Gregor Aichinger (c.1565-1628), based early on at Augsburg, emerged here as a fascinating composer; his Christmas work "Noe, Noe" was full of inventive detail, and endlessly varied and creative in its disposition of the voices. In a tribute to Andersen (1805-75), the Danish language - fearfully difficult to sing (the group has sung Hebrew, Chinese, and Japanese with greater ease, Hollingworth says) - yielded some of the best pieces: Hans Leo Hassler's individual treatment of "In Dulci Jubilo"; an inspired arrangement of a traditional melody, "Maria gennem torne går" ("Through thorns the Virgin Mary goes": text by Thomas Alvad); and a rearrangement (in Danish) of the Pennsylvanian hymn-writer William J. Kirkpatrick's "Away in a Manger" as "Derude i stalden".

The half-hour Lang work was, in the view of some, damaged by an element of puppetry: a sort of light box operated, with varying success, by Matthew Robins, and enabling large images to be projected: a misty street, weeping skyscrapers, and the passive, hollow-eyed, almost Münch-like young girl herself.

I thought that this device worked, without distracting, although the implied pathos could easily have verged on kitsch. But, then, the work itself - notably an endlessly rising, pleading English Kyrie - at times merits a similar view. Far more damaging was the paltry printed programme, devoid of the text, issued at Warwick.

Vocally, Lang's music engaged several strands: a feel of Arvo Pärt (one alto declamation not least, though not slavishly indebted); passages of near-Minimalism; and long-held lines, sometimes sustained by percussion, recalling the tenor of medieval Burgundian composers.

Where voice was paired with percussion, the effect was often mesmerising: bass with solemn bass drum; tenor with curious xylophone effects; wondrously stroked bell-like touches; or the bass soloist's jagged narration, itself percussive. Similarly haunting was a cantilena line, again for tenor, over disconcerting minor-third patterings. By the closing section ("Where is your tomb? Where is your resting place?") and, at the end, a single thrum low down plus a sneering - or redemptive? - jingling flutter leaves the listener aghast: is this a moment of extinction and uplift; a final Mephistophelean smirk; or the hope of some new beginning?

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events

6-7 September 2022
Preaching as Pilgrimage conference
From the College of Preachers.

27-28 September 2022
humbler church Bigger God conference
The HeartEdge Conference in Manchester includes the Theology Slam Live Final.

More events

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)