James Whitbourn: Annelies

Arianna Zukerman / James Jordan

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James Whitbourn: Annelies Review

by James Manheim

The Annelies of the title of this release is the girl better known as Anne Frank, whose diary has humanized the depredations of Nazism for generations of students. Although it is one of the most compelling texts of the 20th century, it would seem impervious to musical setting: its ordinary language and the simple, universal quality that make it so compelling resist the demands of musical setting. Annelies, a work by British composer James Whitbourn to a libretto by Melanie Challenger, avoids the problems in several ingenious ways, and the result is quite a moving work. First, Challenger stays away from long stretches of text, selecting concise passages from Frank's diary that carry a kind of poetic quality, often one of hope despite the terrible conditions in which Frank found herself. The text consists of bits of Frank (each one dated in the booklet) and, at the deadly conclusion, of an external report that tells the whole story. Second, the work is not a solo representation of Anne Frank, but a kind of cantata for soloist and orchestra. In fact, it refers to the German music Frank loved, with particularly haunting effect. Frank's words are divided up between the soloist, here soprano Arianna Zukerman, and the choir, the U.S. group Westminster Williamson Voices. This sounds odd, but it enables Whitbourn to execute the switch between the text's ominous and light-hearted moods without adding the melodrama that music could cause, and the choir and instrumental accompaniment add various other aspects of Frank's musical surroundings. Finally, the soprano part, although innocent, is intentionally not written to be girlish. Zukerman (daughter of Pinchas) gives the part just the right weight: you do not forget you are hearing the words of Anne Frank, but neither is the music a simple simulation of those words. Whitbourn's work also exists in an orchestral version, which has been recorded, but this premiere release of the chamber music seems preferable on the evidence here: it simply fits the dimensions of Frank's world better. The totally committed performances on this release deserve a strong recommendation.

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