David Lang

David Lang: The little Match Girl Passion (Grammy vinder)
David Vernier, Classics Today
Tirsdag, 18. maj

Artistic quality 8/10  Sound quality 10/10

Among the more compelling aspects of modern choral music is the enormous variety of styles and types of works being written, represented by an impressively wide range of high-quality compositions produced not only by some of the world's finest composers, but also by many lesser-known but equally gifted masters of the choral idiom. Although there are certain composing techniques and conventions that are necessitated primarily by the physical limitations of voices, this does not stop many composers from exploring just how much can be achieved within those boundaries, and pushing them a little bit farther.

While not exactly pushing boundaries, American composer David Lang certainly has a way of shaking things up while remaining solidly within a rather narrow realm of harmony and an even more limited range of melodic and rhythmic structures. In the title work, for which Lang won a Pulitzer Prize, the composer wanted to tell Hans Christian Andersen's famous and tragic story centering on its juxtaposition of "horror and beauty", of "suffering and hope", conceiving it musically and dramatically as a kind of equivalent representation of the story of Christ's Passion. This meant setting the narrative not only from the original Andersen story, but also, in the style of Bach's Passions, including texts from other sources, in this case the Gospel of St. Matthew, Picander (Bach's librettist), and H.P. Paull, who translated The little match girl into English in 1872.

Lang presents the music using various fixed motivic elements, such as recurring short bursts of melodic fragments or relentlessly repeated scale-wise motifs or simply an interval or single note, the four singing voices often combined in "jumpy" syncopations or "offset" patterns. Repetition is the guiding structural device. Percussion--primarily a delicately intoned glockenspiel, but also brake drum, bass drum, tubular bells, sleighbell, and crotales--occasionally accompanies the voices. We're not talking about songs or memorable tunes or even dramatic development here; Lang instead creates an atmosphere--cold and bleak--and an emphatic way of making the story's points without the usual dramatic contrivances or conventions.

The music and its execution is certainly challenging (and I should note, to the listener as well!), and if you could choose performers to do it full justice, Paul Hillier's group the Theatre of Voices is among the few virtuoso ensembles that could deliver. And here, where rhythmic accuracy and intonation and consistency of articulation and tone are essential, we are not disappointed, even if the music itself demands a patient mood and "open" ear, and even as it's not easy to follow the texts without the libretto in front of you (there is much overlapping among the voices).

The other works on the program, all written between 2001 and 2007, maintain a similar style to The little match girl passion, except for the remarkable Again (After Ecclesiastes), the disc's final piece, whose arpeggiated figures and later jazz-like harmonies are more expansive--and dare I say ingratiating?--than we hear elsewhere from Lang, whose penchant for repetition reaches an almost unbearable extreme in his For love is strong, an adapted setting of a text from the Song of Songs.

I have to admit that I'm still trying to figure out just what Lang is up to in several of these pieces--again, although the fundamental structural components are very simple (the most basic intervals, chords, and scale patterns), and the repetition makes it easy to follow, the music's effect is more layered, its impression ranging from just plain unnerving to mesmerizing to intriguing and thought-provoking. (And how many recordings do that for you these days?) For sure, you will have to listen to this more than once--or twice; but for those looking for something different, to push their own listening boundaries, it's well worth it.