December in London doesn’t just mean wall-to-wall carol singing and the Messiah. It also means Spitalfields Music Winter Festival, which can be relied upon to programme something novel for the festive season while still not skimping on the mince pies. Friday night saw the innovative vocal ensemble I Fagiolini perform a remarkably diverse selection of pieces ranging from one by the late Renaissance composer Michael Praetorius, via Bach’s motet Jesu, meine Freude, to David Lang’s the little match girl passion (2007). The latter piece, a Pulitzer Prize-winner in 2008, was the centrepiece of the evening and featured some remarkable shadow puppetry performed live by Matthew Robins.

the little match girl passion is seasonal but not festive. It tells Hans Christian Andersen’s story of a poor girl who unsuccessfully tries to sell matches on the street, and who eventually freezes to death. Lang emphasises the Christian aspect of Andersen’s story, turning it into a hushed sort of passion, as its title hints, by including “response” numbers which comment on the action like a chorus – he hence makes explicit the undercurrent of tragedy which is only an undercurrent in Andersen’s original. The direct, transparent musical setting allows the words to do their own work, making for a very emotive piece.

Musically, the performance was as exemplary as should be expected of I Fagiolini, who were reduced to a choir of four and conducted by Robert Hollingworth. The text was conveyed with real clarity, even in this church’s sometimes tricky acoustic, and the singers were just as comfortable in the plainer, narrative sections as in the slightly more musically involved “responses” – at these points, they even occasionally indulged in some tasteful vibrato. They also handled their “simple” (so the score says) percussion parts with great care.

Spitalfields Music Winter Festival: The Little Match Girl Passion © Matthew Robins
Spitalfields Music Winter Festival: The Little Match Girl Passion
© Matthew Robins

Robins’ intricate puppetwork cast a silhouette of the girl into the centre of a huge, heartless metropolis, with swooping panorama shots and dramatic lighting effects, all made in real time by Robins, who scurried about in full view in front of a projector which relayed his creations onto a larger screen behind. His interpretation, though, didn’t win me over, seeming to emphasise the tragedy of the story at the expense of the strange, naïve note of hope that so beautifully pervades the original, and telling it all through a very east-London sort of shabby chic style which was not the perfect fit for Lang’s aesthetic. The visuals hence didn’t add to the words and music so much as take away from them, and what appeared to be the occasional technical slip as well only compounded the impression that Andersen’s simple tale had been given only a simplistic telling.

Much as I Fagiolini’s general habit of finding novel ways to dramatise music is something to be praised (they famously staged the whole of Monteverdi’s Fourth Book of Madrigals, for instance), the extra visual component didn’t feel really essential here. Lang’s piece, after all, is deliberately pretty sparse on effects, and arguably packs a greater emotional punch because of this. It is also a contemporary, English-language work, which hence already has a direct link to its audience today in a way that the music of Monteverdi et al simply doesn’t. Adding elements to Lang’s piece, especially rather unsubtle ones, ultimately took something crucial away.

Ironically, this concert’s first half suffered from essentially the opposite problem, with a beautiful but resolutely undramatic performance of Bach’s longest motet, Jesu, meine Freude. They sang with scrupulous devotion to Bach’s text, which was of great concern to Bach himself, who indulges in a considerable amount of word-painting, direct musical responses to particular words and phrases in the text – as the programme notes pointed out. This is music urgently trying to tell a story – but this story is hard to make out when you don’t speak German and it’s too dark to read the words.

Before each of these two major works was a short selection of miniature pieces from relevant places – north Germany before the Bach, Denmark before the Andersen story – with a light Christmas theme. A stunning In dulci jubilo, slow, gentle and sung in Danish, was a humble musical high-point in this impressive but conceptually mixed concert.