- Little Match Girl Passion by David Lang (2007, New York)
Click here to listen to the work in its entirety.
If I had to pick one piece for the most purely beautiful and moving of the past decade, this would be it easily. The piece is based on Hans Christian Anderson's fable 'The Little Match Girl' about a little girl's final hours before she freezes to death. The compositional technique involved is staggering, but it feels artless. When was the last time music felt this unaffected and natural? Poulenc? Schubert? Bach? Maybe Bach is it...this is actually the second piece of this list to be based out of Bach's St. Matthew Passion. But the channeling of Bach is far more tangible than in Golijov's setting of St. Mark. Every composer who channels Bach invites a comparison. But most other composers channel Bach's unsurpassed compositional technique, which usually has the effect make Bach's materials sound overblown and distended. Instead, Lang might be the first composer in history to write an original work that successfully channels Bach's seemingly infinite humanity and compassion. Here is a modern composer who meets Bach on Bach's own terms and succeeds. So let it never be said that the greatest music is already written. At certain points, the music's intensity of feeling is almost unbearable. If you're a musical weeper (and I am, you probably are too, admit it...) you'll find it very hard to get through some parts of this piece while other people are in the room....I have absolutely no experience in this regard....none at all....
- A Scotch Bestiary by James MacMillan (2004, Los Angeles)
(St. John Passion. Nobody can say this isn't a great work of its type. However dumb parts of the staging look. Like Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand or Bruckner's Fifth Symphony it's incredibly powerful stuff so long as the performers provide some contrast. "Visionary Dreariness" is how Deryck Cooke, the famous musicologist, described works like these. Also worth it to hear MacMillan try to pronounce Gesamtkunstwerk in a Scottish burr.)
It was a tough call with Scotland's finest. Duty says that one should pick his 'great statement,' the St. John Passion which premiered last year in London. But I gotta go with my gut on this one and pick the piece I loved the most - A Scotch Bestiary. There are composers who make incredible intellectual demands (not to mention composers who pretend to), and there are composers who make incredible emotional demands. Like only a select few before him (Beethoven, Schumann, Mahler, Shostakovich, a few more...) the simple act of listening to MacMillan's music stretches your emotional capability. Everything is there from the highest humor to the lowest despair and all that lies between. He's the closest our age has to a Mahler.
(Soweetan Spring. This gives the feeling of MacMillan at his most compelling. Born almost exactly a century after Mahler, he gives the exact same feeling of letting every sound he hears around him into his musical landscape.)
But like in Mahler, he's perhaps easier to love when he's in a lighter mood (note to any Mahlerians reading this, I'm the Ayatollah of the Mahler fanclub. Every note is holy text. So there...), and nothing brings his lighter moods out like nature. The program notes for the piece contain all sorts of grandiose desciptions of MacMillan's musical depiction of animals, but the composer admitted that he was most inspired to write the piece by the music from Tom & Jerry. To be sure, there's darkness aplenty, but it's always offset by an uncannily deft touch. In fact, this piece may have my single favorite musical moment of the past ten years: a full-throated choral incantation of a IV-II-III Amen, immediately followed by muted trombones going waaa-waaa-waaa-waaaaaaaah (V-TT-IV-III).
(from Seven Last Words On The Cross. It would be an interesting program - albeit too long and sacerdotal - to do both the Haydn and the MacMillan in one sitting.)