David Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion sets Hans Christian Anderson’s tale about the little girl who freezes to death on New Year’s Eve in the ‘tell and comment’ format of Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion, with the girl’s suffering substituted for that of Jesus.
The work, by the American former composer-in-residence at Sage Gateshead, has an impeccable pedigree, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2008.
It’s not a pretty story, dealing with an abusive father who sends his poor daughter onto the cold streets to sell matches, but there’s hope in the vision of her grandmother in the light of the matches she strikes to try to keep warm.
She retains her Christian purity to the end, being found frozen to death the next morning. Like Jesus, she finds her peace in Heaven. It’s a heavy, uneasy piece but one which is deeply felt.
The style of singing, whilst harmonically strong, is conversational, fragmented and fragile, with overlapping and repeating vocal lines. It poses a challenge to audience and performers alike.
Voices of Hope, the award-winning North East chamber choir directed by Simon Fidler, were at one with the text and the composer’s precise instructions, singing with total empathy throughout a piece which calls for solo and multiple-part voices.
There’s the additional requirement for the singers to play isolated percussion instruments, from brake drum to bass drum, glockenspiel to tubular bells.
A stark story with a happy ending, it’s an unconventional piece to perform – there’s no room for anything other than absolute precision.
Probably it’s unlike anything this audience will have heard before, although it was performed at Sage Gateshead three years ago.
Voices of Hope did it the justice it deserves. It’s no great surprise that it’s so well regarded and it was very well received on this occasion.