Review: Víkingur Ólafsson’s Debussy – Rameau

Jean-Philippe Rameau and Claude Debussy were both French.

In my mind, that’s about the only thing they have in common. You’ll soon find out why.

But in Víkingur Ólafsson’s mind, Rameau and Debussy have an intimate connection – despite the almost 200 years between them.

And Ólafsson is one of the hottest new piano virtuosos right now. So his opinion is worth a lot more than mine. Moreover, he enforced it by recording an album that illustrates that connection.

Debussy - Rameau cover

Apart from illustrating that you’re never too old to enjoy finger painting.

Ear-opener

Debussy – Rameau is not the most imaginatively named record of the year. You wouldn’t suspect that this is a ‘concept album’: Ólafsson carefully chose and arranged the tracks so the whole would be greater than the sum of the parts.

There’s an idea that he wants to convey:

“make [Rameau and Debussy] into musical friends and create a dialogue that might show Rameau in a futuristic light, and find Debussy’s deep roots in the French Baroque”

Does he succeed? Certainly, his interpretation of Rameau was an ear-opener to me.

Maybe it’s because I only knew his keyboard works from harpsichord performances.
Maybe because he literally wrote the rule book of tonal harmony.
Maybe because of the schoolmasterish air that exudes from his portraits.

The fact is I never realized how emotional and intense Rameau’s music can be.

Jean-Philippe Rameau

Jolts of pleasure

This intensity of Rameau’s music is exactly what Ólafsson makes clear. Not by adding pathos or making grand gestures. But by charging the music with palpable tension.

From the very first note of every one of these little pieces, you get the feeling that there’s a massive amount of sadness, joy, melancholy, rage … bubbling beneath the surface.

Sometimes it makes a ripple in the neatly woven musical canvas: an ornamental figure drawing attention to itself, an accompanying melody in one of the middle voices making a bold statement.

Thanks to Ólafsson transparent and sensitive style, none of these details go unnoticed. And each one rewards the listener with a little jolt of pleasure.

I like it, is what I’m trying to say. And I understand how this ‘impressionistic’ Rameau would pair well with his compatriote from almost two centuries later.

Even if that’s a connection I don’t feel

Moments of irritation

I can only assume that Ólafsson’s interpretation of Debussy is just as good. Because I’m convinced that the only thing a skilled pianist needs in order to give an adequate Debussy performance is a functioning sustain pedal.

You see, I’m not a big fan of Debussy’s piano music. To put it mildly. From his dull pentatonic melodies to his endless ‘dreamy’ scales up and down the keyboard – they irritate me to no end.

Claude Debussy with a hat

And in what universe is that an acceptable way to wear a hat?

Claude Debussy with hat indoors

Seriously.

There’s only one Debussy track on the album that doesn’t make reach for the skip button: Jardins sous la pluie is a lively piece in the style of a baroque toccata. It fits in perfectly with the Rameau pieces and makes me realize that Ólafsson’s concept works. Even if I can’t fully enjoy it.

Fortunately, on this album, there’s a lot more Rameau to enjoy than Debussy to be irritated by. And if you like them both, you will no doubt be swept away from the first note to the last.

Acis and Galatea: Handel the comedian

Last summer, I paid a short visit to London. In my backpack: a few biographies of – and a lot of music by – George Frideric Handel. My mission? To re-acquaint myself with Britain’s greatest composer. And to write a few articles about it, of course. Third stop: Canons Park.

There are dozens of unique sights you can marvel at when visiting London. Canons Park is not one of them. On the contrary, it’s reassuring in its ordinariness. It’s the perfect spot when you want a vacation from vacationing.

The main place of interest is the extensive park that gave its name to this suburb. These are the former grounds of Cannons house, the humble dwellings of James Brydges, 1st Duke of Chandos, and one of the first English patrons of Handel.

James Brydges, patron of G.F. Handel

Handel supposedly lived under the Duke’s roof from 1717 until 1719. Here, he wrote my favorite among his theatre works: Acis and Galatea. It was probably first performed in what is now Canons Park. The setting would have looked like a typical 18th century pleasure world of rocks, fountains and grottos.

Pastoral scene

Like this, but slightly less French.

I had to imagine all that when I listened to the whole piece – sitting on a 21st century park bench. Within minutes, the plodding joggers and poorly rested young mothers turned into joyful shepherds and seductive nymphs. Such is the power of music.

The story

Strictly speaking, Acis and Galatea is not an opera but a pastoral masque. What’s the difference? For one thing, a masque probably wasn’t fully acted out. It’s also a lot shorter, because it was usually performed as a light intermezzo in between acts of real operatic works.

Pastoral stories were very popular during the 17th and 18th centuries. They looked exactly like you imagine them: horny shepherds and shepherdesses chasing each other through a decor of idealized nature.

On a (slightly) deeper level, the pastoral deals with true love. Specifically the idea that it cannot depend on duty – like a marriage – but only truly exists in a world that is unconnected to the rules of society.

Paqtoral love scene

Hót.

The story of Acis and Galatea, which is based on Ovid, perfectly fits that description. I’m barely simplifying when I summarize the action as:

  • The nymph Galatea is looking for the shepherd Acis.
  • The shepherd Acis is looking for the nymph Galatea.
  • Acis and Galatea find each other and sing merrily.
  • The cyclops Polyphemus declares his love for Galatea.
  • Polyphemus gets angry when Galatea doesn’t love him back.
  • Polyphemus kills Acis.
  • Galatea is very sad and uses her divine powers to give Acis eternal life – in the form of a fountain.

The music

The story of Acis and Galatea was probably suggested to Handel by John Gay and Alexander Pope. They were members of the Scribblers Club: a circle of gentlemen who believed in the power of the classical pastoral.

Incidentally, it’s his connection to ‘arcadian’ gentlemen’s clubs like these that’s partly responsible for the rumor that Handel was gay.

In any case, we owe these gentlemen our gratitude. Because Acis and Galatea holds a unique position in Handel’s oeuvre.

You see, during this period, Handel was mainly bent on making it as a composer of Italian operas. And the typical Italian opera of those days was as boring as watching paint dry. It consisted of an endless parade of characters who sang their highly standardized arias – barely interacting with each other.

Were Handel’s Italian operas any different? Not really. Although they contain a lot of lovely music, I dare anyone to sit through one of them without checking her clock at least once.

The beginning of Acis and Galatea is a lot like Italian opera: lovely but entirely conventional. Luckily, before boredom sets in, Polyphemus breaks into the arcadian order. And he also tears the musical canvas:

After this wonderful dramatic entry, we soon realize that Polyphemus is not a horrific monster at all. He’s an amiable simpleton. A bit crude, maybe, but more fun to be around than the pretentious couple that dominated the first act.

He immediately launches into a kind of English country song – the first aria that breaks with the typical ABA form:

Acis and Galatea now becomes a work where two (musical) worlds collide: the high-brow pastoral of the title characters and the low-brow parody of Polyphemus. This culminates in a trio that I think is one of the most powerful moments in the history of musical drama:

While Acis and Galatea croon a beautiful, but also artificial ode to the purity of their love … Polyphemus’ ‘counterpoint’ is as clumsy at is real. His words aren’t poetry but cries from the heart: “Fury … Rage … I cannot bear.” His music isn’t melody but a loose succession of the simplest of intervals: octaves, seconds.

And yet, when it comes together, the sum is much larger than its parts. It’s the work of a dramatic genius.

Acis and Galatea and Mozart

A dramatic genius, it seems, who was not always very aware of his greatest strengths. According to some sources, Handel wasn’t so keen on the idea of making a buffoon of Polyphemus. And in later revisions, he lessened the comic character a bit.

Seventy years after the premiere of Acis and Galatea, Acis und Galatea was performed in Vienna. It was a re-orchestration of Handel’s masque by Mozart – whose own comic pieces take up three spots in the list of the ten most popular operas today. Their stars have names like Papageno, Figaro and Leporello. They should all doff their hats at their modest predecessor: the amiable monster Polyphemus.

Was Handel Gay?

If you like “sensuous coming-of-age stories” – and who doesn’t? – there’s a novel out about George Frideric Handel’s life in the closet.

If the author hoped to create a Twitter storm around the idea of a homosexual Handel, she’s almost twenty years too late. Handel regularly features at the top of lists of LGBTQ composers, and his gayness was cited as a fact on which musicologists “seem to agree” in the New York Times.

Besides, didn’t the composer himself remove all remaining doubts by cowriting a Pet Shop Boys song in 2012?

Gay Handel

“What have I done to deserve this?”

Fact or gossip?

I admit that I myself have frequently enjoyed repeating this juicy piece of knowledge. However, I almost never got the shocked response I was hoping for. Probably because people consider a certain level of gayness self-evident in an era where all gentlemen of means chose to dress like Liberace.

Typical 18th century man.

Fabulous

It seems I owe all these people an apology. Because I recently decided to check the facts instead of acting like a common gossipmonger. And I found that the idea of a homosexual Handel is completely baseless.

Why Handel could have been gay

The rumors around Handel’s sexuality mainly originate from the book Handel as Orpheus by Ellen T. Harris. Although I should immediately add that Ms. Harris herself has since declared that the belief that she dubbed Handel a homosexual is “ridiculous”.

So, what did she write in her book? Mainly that:

  • Handel spent a lot of his early years loitering in Italian courts and English country estates that were regularly frequented (if not run) by men with same-sex desires
  • the works which he wrote there (the Italian cantatas and theatrical works such as Acis and Galatea) contain homosexual subtexts, for instance in the way they avoid identifying the gender of the person being lovingly serenated

Add that to the undisputable fact that Handel remained a bachelor all his life, and one might start to wonder …

Why Handel wasn’t gay

In two articles on Handel’s social circles in Rome and London, Thomas McGeary convincingly buried the idea that Handel was surrounded by homosexual men.

There’s just not a shred of evidence that places like Cannons or Burlington House were hotspots of homoerotic activity. And there are no contemporary sources that link people like Alexander Pope or even the conspicuously named John Gay to homosexual behaviors.

You might think that such an absence of first-hand accounts is due to 18th century squeamishness about the love that dare not speak its name. But you would be wrong. At least in England, accusing public figures of sodomy was a national pastime. And as a foreign-born composer of ‘effeminate’ Italian operas, with strong ties to the not universally loved German royal family, Handel would have made an ideal victim.

Burlington house

Burlington House as it looked in Handel’s days. Not pictured: homosexual men.

That Handel wasn’t gay doesn’t make him straight

Although it’s a lot less ludicrous, this discussion bears some resemblance to the claim that Beethoven was black. Just like people from African descent, the LGBTQ community could use more high-profile icons in the domain of classical music. It’s almost a pity that historical evidence doesn’t allow them that satisfaction.

However, there’s also an important difference. While a non-black Beethoven is evidently a white Beethoven, a not openly gay Handel is not necessarily a heterosexual Handel. It’s just a Handel about who’s sexual inclinations we remain totally in the dark.

That goes for almost all composers before the late 19th century. Taking on a homosexual identity was literally unthinkable in those days. So it’s impossible to say which way their deepest desires went.

And does that matter? Is there such a thing as gay music? That’s worth a wholly separate discussion.

Village people

Don’t automatically say no. Think it through.

For the moment, I’ll leave you with a piece of gossip that is verified. In the privacy of his own home, the composer of the manliest oeuvre of the 19th century preferred lace corsets to steel armor and winged helmets.

Do you want more speculations about Handel’s love life? Here you go: he might have been in love with England’s most exceptional queen.

 

Review: Dag Wirén String Quartets

Apparently, Punxsutawney Phil predicts an early spring this year. That means you only have a few weeks left to enjoy the winter with its perfect soundtrack: the Dag Wirén string quartets by the Wirén Quartet.

Dag Wirén string quartets

Dag Wirén: not a man of words

Never heard of Dag Wirén? Neither did I before this record caught my attention. Some quick facts:

Wirén already stopped composing in 1970, stating: “One should stop in time, while one still has time to stop in time.”

Dag Wirén

Luckily, his music is more memorable than his aphorisms.

Timeless craftmanship

Wirén’s style, especially in his early years, can only be described as neoclassical. To my ears: very neoclassical. Actually, he sounds like Brahms with a pair of warm woolen mittens.

But who cares that he was not hip with the times? Especially if he managed to come up with compositions such as his third string quartet, my favorite one on this record.

Its first movement starts off with a softly rocking accompaniment. Like a flower from under a snow bed, the first violin rises to the surface with the basic melody. Gradually, the other instruments join in to start a fascinating dialogue based on that motif. And just when their disagreement reaches its climax, the conversation abruptly halts and begins anew.

The second, slow movement is a romantic piece based on a pining melody that I’m sure I’ve heard before but can’t quite place. Drop me a note in the comments if you can help me out.

After the short but stirring minuet, the quartet closes with a finale where Wirén waves a tapestry out of the basic melodies of the previous three movements.

None of this would have sounded innovative in 1941. And it sounds even less so today. But the way Wirén develops and combines his musical themes bears witness to a timeless craftmanship that engages your attention while still being easy on the ears. And sometimes that’s all you need during those darkest days of the year.

Pizzicati and … er … stuff

What’s left for a composer after writing a neoclassical masterpiece such as that third string quartet? Judging from his fourth and fifth quartets, also included on this record, Wirén chose to adopt a more modern style. Not Stockhausen or Ligeti modern though, more like Sibelius and Shostakovich modern.

One thing that remains constant is Wirén’s wonderful talent for string arranging. All the quartets are overflowing with plinky plonks and zings and fiiiieuws – or whatever the technical terms may be.

It’s all immaculately performed by the Wirén Quartet. A bit too immaculately, perhaps. I get the feeling that, if they would tone down their reverence towards the composer a bit – he’s in their name after all – and let their own musical personalities shine through, this music would sound even better.

But what do I know? Do make up your own mind by listening to Dag Wirén string quartets by the Wirén Quartet on CD, Spotify or Apple Music. You won’t regret it.

 

For King, Country and Love: Handel and the Hanoverians

Last summer, I paid a short visit to London. In my backpack: a few biographies of – and a lot of music by – George Frideric Handel. My mission? To re-acquaint myself with Britain’s greatest composer. And to write a few articles about it, of course. Second stop: Buckingham Palace.

As I walked from Handel’s house to his grave in Westminster Abbey, I more or less passed Buckingham Palace. So, although I hadn’t planned to, I decided to take a closer look.

Buckingham palace

In Handel’s time, it was a lot smaller and nothing more than the townhouse of the Duke of Buckingham. Today, it’s the London residence of the British monarch and a honeypot for swarms of tourists from all over the world.

It’s fascinating to see how the monarchy has become Britain’s most successful export product. Not bad for what is essentially a German import. After all, it’s been only a hundred years since the family changed its name from ‘Saxe-Coburg und Gotha’ to ‘Windsor’.

You know who else is a piece of German import? Britain’s greatest composer, George Frideric Handel – who changed his name from Georg Friedrich Händel the moment he set foot on English soil.

Coincidence? Not at all.

“If Bach wrote music to please God, Handel was born to sing the praise of royalty.”

Long live the king

You probably know this tune of Handel’s:

It’s Zadok the Priest, an anthem Handel wrote for the coronation of George II, the second English king from the German house of Hanover. It’s played at every coronation since. And you might also recognize it from the shameless rip-off that is the UEFA Champions League Anthem.

Zadok the Priest is one of those pieces of music that you think you know, until you realize you don’t. Listen to it again and you’ll be amazed at how good it is. Yes, it’s big and solemn – just as a composition for such an occasion should be. Yet it’s also very clever and original. With its teasing introduction breaking off the rising tension for a few times before the triumphant chorus finally comes through. And the satisfying balance that comes from the alternation between the pompous ‘God Save the King’ parts in unison and the delicate ‘Hallelujah/Amen’ flourishes, set as a fugue.

Coronation of George II

Coronation of George II and his wife Caroline

If Bach wrote music to please God, Handel was born to sing the praise of royalty. Even in his most famous religious composition – Messiah – the image of the suffering savior is dwarfed by the triumphant ‘king of kings’ in the Hallelujah chorus.

Handel had every reason to be enthusiastic about monarchic power. After all, it was the generous financial support of George I and George II that allowed him the rock star lifestyle that most other musicians of his days could only dream of.

And maybe it wasn’t just money that endeared him to the Hanoverian royal family.

Made in Germany

If you have any taste in television, the first image that comes to mind when you think of the Hanoverian Dynasty is this guy from Blackadder:

Hanoverian Prince Regent from Blackadder

He’s the hilarious culmination of more than two centuries of anti-Hanoverian propaganda, which started under the Victorians and got worse – for obvious reasons – after the first world war. These German kings and princes were generally considered stupid, gluttonous and perpetually power-hungry.

The real story is very different. When the dukes of Hannover inherited the British crown, their Duchy was one of the most enlightened in Europe. And unlike their absolutist Stuart predecessors, they were clever enough to govern more by influence than by force. Most historians now think that they invented the modern monarchy.

But maybe it isn’t so much the Hanoverian men who deserve that honor.

Mädchenmacht*

George I received the British crown because his mother Sophia was a granddaughter of James II. It’s largely due to Sophia that the Hanoverian court became one of the most sophisticated in Europe. She especially took an interest in philosophy – reading Descartes and Spinoza and striking up a lifelong friendship with Leibniz.

Her daughter Sophia Charlotte married Frederic I of Prussia. She inherited her mother’s interest in philosophy and combined that with a passion for music.

Around 1696, she took an orphan princess into her home: Caroline of Ansbach. Apart from food and a roof over her head, Sophia Charlotte gave Caroline a proper enlightened education and the opportunity to meet some of the most illustrious philosophers and artists of that time, including the young Georg Friedrich Händel – on a visit in Berlin from his hometown of Halle.

* Girl power

Royal wedding

In 1705, another dashing young gentleman visited the court of Frederic I: Georg of Hanover, who would later become George II of England. After some time at the court in Hanover, she followed her husband to England to become princess of Wales and finally Queen Caroline.

Queen Caroline of England

From the moment she arrived in London, Caroline made it clear that she had no intention of limiting her new role to posing for portraits and looking good at parties. She actively interfered in politics, mainly through her husband and her close friendship with prime minister Sir Robert Walpole.

As an enlightened soul she saw it as her duty to promote modern science and the arts. One of the first persons she visited was Sir Isaac Newton. She asked him to recommend math and astronomy teachers for her children.

Of course, there was never any question about who would become the music teacher at the princely and royal courts: her old friend Handel.

People’s princess

You only need one story to realize what an extraordinary women Caroline was. In the 1720s, a promising new medical procedure against smallpox was widely discussed in England: inoculation, an early form of vaccination. To demonstrate her belief in modern science, Caroline had her own children inoculated. Thereby proving that:

  1. Inoculation is effective and completely safe.
  2. As an 18th century woman, she had more sense than an alarmingly large portion of present-day Americans and Europeans.

Queen Caroline died in 1737. Her husband realized his extraordinary luck in marrying this woman. At her deathbed, he promised her that he would not marry again but “would only take mistresses.” Apparently, that’s about as close to true love as you could get in the 18th century.

King George II

A very lucky man: king George II

Handel in love?

In his magnificent book The Lives of George Frideric Handel, David Hunter toys around with the idea that there was more to the relationship between Handel and Queen Caroline than that between a generous patron and a talented artist. Although he admits there’s no proof for his theory, he presents a powerful case by matching their timelines since their first meeting, when they were practically still teenagers.

True or false, the story of the lifelong romance between the princess and the musician is absolutely irresistible. Hollywood, if you’re reading this, don’t miss this opportunity to turn this story into a blockbuster. Personally, I’m thinking a cross-over between The Piano and Les Liaisons Dangereuses. But you’re the experts of course.

Requiem for a queen

As I said, there is no smoking gun for this theory about Handel’s love life. But there is an extremely reliable witness. And I can listen to its testimony over and over again: Handel’s Funeral Ode for Queen Caroline.

You’ll never convince me that Handel wrote this music out of respect and gratitude for a dynastic family. This is the sound of true grief for someone he greatly admired. Maybe, even, loved.

I wouldn’t call the Funeral Ode an obscure piece. But it certainly isn’t an audience favorite either. Strange, since funeral music has been a very popular niche throughout the ages. And a lot of that death music can’t hold the candle to Handel’s composition. Yes, that includes Mozart’s/Süssmayrs Requiem which, by the way, doesn’t even try to hide the influence of Handel’s Funeral Ode:

Crown jewel

Of course, monarchies caused a lot of misery throughout history. But their patronage, just like that of the church, did produce some amazing works of art. And Handel’s Funeral Ode for Queen Caroline is certainly one of the greatest jewels in the British crown.

No wonder that this work is played at every funeral of a member of the British royal family, especially if she’s female, right?

Right?!

Elton John

I see. Well then: Vive la république!

Seriously though, give Handel’s Funeral Ode a few listens if you haven’t yet. There’s an excellent version waiting for you on CD, Spotify or Apple Music.

 

Review: Schubert Unfinished by Concentus Musicus Wien

When I’m scanning the new classical album releases, I usually choose works I haven’t heard yet. As there’s still so much beautiful music to discover, why would I be interested in a slightly different version of, let’s say, Beethoven’s fifth?

There are exceptions to that rule. Those are works that I’m obsessed by – you could even say: in love with. I can’t stand the thought of missing out on the tiniest nuance of their character. And that’s exactly what a good new interpretation can reveal.

Coming of age

Schubert’s Unfinished symphony is one of those works. And I must say, the new recording by Concentus Musicus Wien, led by Stefan Gottfried, does not disappoint.

Schubert Unfinished by Concentus Musicus Wien

Funny thing about Schubert’s 8th symphony: when I was first drawn to it as an adolescent, I fell for all the doom and gloom that seem to permeate it – or at least its first two movements. And I still enjoy that all-engulfing weltschmerz. But in smaller doses.

Luckily, performance practice has been so obliging to parallel my coming of age. Recordings of the last few decades have blown away the dust that all those romantic interpretations had strewn on the surface of the Unfinished symphony.

Schubert’s Pastoral

This exceptional recording sounds to me like the high point of that evolution. Gone are the days when the beautiful but heavy tapestry of strings muffled the overall sound of the orchestra. Those strings are now a backdrop to the delicate interplay of the woodwinds and irreverent, even cheeky blaring of the brass section.

To me, it changes the character of the symphony: from the tragic to the pastoral. In fact, the biggest revelation for me was how closely Schubert’s 8th sometimes resembles Beethoven’s 6th.

The slow one fast and the fast one slow

Stefan Gottfried chooses his tempos wisely: the slow movement is relatively fast, the last movement rather slow – almost hesitant. The added bonus is the reduced character contrast between the first two movements (the Unfinished proper) and the final two. Read what that’s all about.

Meanwhile, René Jacobs and B’Rock Orchestra have started their own complete recording of the Schubert symphonies. The first installment certainly sounds promising, but I doubt they’ll be able to top Gottfried’s interpretation of the Unfinished. I’m ready to be surprised, though.

You can listen to the interpretation of Schubert’s Unfinished symphony by Concentus Music Wien on cd, Spotify and Apple Music.

David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion

Are you passionate about passions? Then you’ve probably spent Easter listening to Bach’s St Matthew Passion. Or, if you’re the kind of person who likes to impress people with his maverick musical taste, Bach’s St John Passion, Handel’s Brockes Passion or Beethoven’s Christ on the Mount of Olives.

And if you truly don’t care about what other people think of you: A Passion Play by British prog rockers Jethro Tull.

A Passion Play by Jethro Tull

Forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Me, I chose David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion this year. The piece is barely ten years old, but already a bit of a classic. I liked it so much, I’m ready to spread the word.

The story

You probably already know this fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, about a little girl who is forced by her father to sell matches on the street, fails to do so, is afraid to go home and starts to hallucinate.

Don’t’ worry, there’s a happy ending: she’s reunited with her loving grandmother … by freezing to death.

The Little Match Girl

I never really liked this story, because I find it a bit too sentimental for my taste. Seeing as I cried when I first saw Jack die in Titanic, that’s saying something.

Of course, it wouldn’t be the first brilliant musical setting of a schmaltzy text. Besides, David Lang is a less shallow reader than I am. In the little match girl story, he sees a parallel with the passion of Christ. Not only do both Jesus and the girl suffer, they are also both scorned by the crowd and transfigured by death.

The music

This thematic parallel is why David Lang chose to compose the little match girl story as a passion, alternating between:

  • the telling of the story – an English translation of Andersen’s fairy tale text
  • poetic commentaries on the story – for which he mainly uses the libretto of Bach’s St Matthew Passion

The music is a minimalistic affair, with only four voices and percussion. Don’t expect dramatic timpani or excited drumming – we’re talking about a few accents by a lonely sleigh bell or glockenspiel.

Glockenspiel, used in David Lang's The Little Match Girl passion

Oh, wipe that smile of your face. There’s nothing funny about a glockenspiel.

The melodies and harmonies are just as sober. Lang builds his composition out of a few simple musical cells which don’t evolve but repeat themselves over and over again.

But it works. For me at least. And remarkably, the numbers where he recites the story make the biggest impression on me.

In a baroque or classical passion, oratorio or opera, these recitatives are the places where you can doze off for a moment – waiting for the next aria or chorus to come along.

In Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion, these narrative fragments start out quite emotionless and monotonous. But soon Lang subtly raises the tension by introducing countermelodies, shifting the position of the voices so they create irregular rhythms, and so on.

To me, that echoes the girl’s descent into madness and despair. Until order returns when she’s found dead in the snow – definitely not rising again. A bitter, but beautiful climax.

Listen to David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion

Another great thing about this passion is that its story takes place on New Year’s Eve. So you can use it as a backdrop to your Easter and Christmas festivities. There are a few decent performances on YouTube. But the first and definitive version is the one by Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices, available on CD, Spotify and Apple Music. Enjoy!

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