Album James Whitbourn's cantata Annelies

Whitbourn album cover with Anne Frank portrait

Through her famous diary, Anne Frank, the the Jewish schoolgirl who hid from the Nazis, put a personal, human face to the genocide of the Holocaust. British composer James Whitbourn is the first to set her words to music, in a haunting choral work composed for National Holocaust Day on 27 January. Andrew Stewart gives his verdict.

Rating 4

Of all the documents that bear witness to the Holocaust – the industrialised slaughter of millions to the power of one profoundly evil ideology – the diary of Anne Frank stands out for what it tells us about the survival of human dignity and compassion in extreme circumstances. Unlike countless victims of Nazi genocide, we know her by name; we share her hopes for future progress and flourishing, and recognise ourselves mirrored in her writing. Little wonder that Soviet apparatchiks spluttered and squirmed when Yevgeny Yevtushenko included Anne Frank, ‘transparent as the thinnest branch in April’, in Babi Yar, the poet’s defiant attack on the antisemites who ‘have proclaimed themselves/The “Union of the Russian People!”’ 

Whitbourn's setting of passages from Anne’s diary conveys a young girl’s fear, confusion, frustrations and irrepressible optimism

That people still disbelieve, even deny, the Holocaust haunts James Whitbourn’s Annelies. His setting of passages from Anne’s diary, first performed in London on National Holocaust Day (27 January) in 2005, conveys a young girl’s fear, confusion, frustrations and irrepressible optimism. It also voices an eloquent warning, drawn from the last century’s bloody history. You can hear it expressed with heart-breaking clarity in ‘Passing of time’ (track 11) and, above all, ‘The capture and the concentration camp' (track 13). Conductor James Jordan, soprano soloist Arianna Zukerman and their fellow performers invest uncommon care and touching devotion to the job of recording Whitbourn’s tuneful cantata, presented here for the first time in its chamber version from 2009. 

Thanks to Whitbourn’s sophisticated harmonic shifts, strategic melodic subversions and moments of silence, Annelies avoids sentimentality while exploring sentiment. Although I find his syllabic treatment of ‘This is D-Day’ (track 12) too close to Monty Python for comfort, the composer proves a painfully honest and compelling teller of Anne’s story, carefully mixing his pastiche of dance band, klezmorim and musical theatre styles with Bach chorales, romantic instrumental interludes and plainsong to evoke searing images of personal loss and a continent’s descent into barbarity.

Artists: Arianna Zukerman (soprano), Westminster Williamson Voices, The Lincoln Trio), Bharat Chandra (clarinet)/James Jordan

Andrew Stewart has written about classical music since the mid-1980s for, among others, the Independent, BBC Music Magazine, Classic FM magazine, Classical Music, Music Week and The Strad.