The Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra programmed a rare and thoroughly engaging performance of Hans Kox’s Anne Frank Cantata, ‘A child of light’ for its annual May 4th memorial concert, remembering the genocide and fallen soldiers of World War II. Joined by the Netherlands Concert Choir and three Dutch soloists, they performed the unsettling, but thought-provoking, piece with great zeal. The powerful choir especially impressed with its dynamic versatility. After the interval, Antony Hermus lead a flawed, but still powerful, rendition of Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 5 in D minor.

Antony Hermus © Claudia Heysel
Antony Hermus
© Claudia Heysel

In 1984, Hans Kox composed his piece about Anne Frank, but due to copyright issues, he was unable to quote her diary for his libretto. Consequently, the composer assembled his own libretto from many sources including William Blake, Paul Celan and Rilke, as well as biblical passages alternated with quotations from Hitler and an S.S. soldier. At first sight, the libretto seems intellectually arbitrary, but Kox’s accessible music formed a structure for these highly diverse quotations. Harmonic majors reflect Anne’s innocence and youth, while dissonant minors represent the Nazi’s terrifying presence. Moments of silence made it difficult to sustain momentum through Kox’s fragmentary introduction, but Hermus managed to bring all the elements of the piece together in an emotional, at times oppressive, experience.

Kox divided the piece in three parts and an introduction. Each segment differed from the other in its message, but Kox’s progression from darkness to light creates continuity within the piece. Brass opened the “Introduction” going off as if sirens wailing their dissonant alarms. The music settled down to softly suspenseful, harmonic strings. Martina Prins calmly began with verses from Blake with which Kox represents Anne (“Little creature, form’d of Joy and Mirth/Go love without the help of any Thing on Earth”). Then, the choir erupted commanding the audience’s attention. Establishing these extremes barely prepared the audience for what was to come.

After the introduction follows “Pars I: Nox”. Clanging percussion accentuated Helena Rasker’s fragile sound in the fear-inducing passages to parts from the books of Esther and Exodus. Kox alternates the bible with quotes from Hitler describing the annihilation of the Jews. Bastiaan Everink delivered these with a scary, threatening intensity. Hermus successfully brought out Kox’s unnerving atmosphere, culminating in the choir’s dynamic contrasts. 

In “Pars II: Mors”, Hermus continued to build on the unsettling ambience, overwhelming the listener with extremes that remind of Ligeti’s Requiem or Atmospheres. Kox’s selection from Job and the quotes from an S.S. soldier’s diary, combined with his gut-wrenching score, worked effectively to uproot the listener’s emotion and reason. Rasker created a highlight in her dialogue with Olga Martinova, concertmaster, who provided a shrilling motif to the alto passages and also impressed later in her moments in Shostakovich.

Prins opened the final “Pars III: Lux”, her moment to shine in with quotation from Rilke’s Book of Monastic Life, offering a soothing warmth to her high notes. Her full, clear phrasing enlivened the Romantic passages. Later in an orchestral highpoint, the red-glowing cellos accompanied Rasker’s passages from a Polish Kaddish with bursts of energy in their adrenaline-producing motif. These were so effectively stirring that I wished Kox had included more. Before the piece closed with St Augustine in a quiet back and forth between Rasker and Everink, the choir had one last moment of brilliance in a passage form Psalms, including a tremendous Quid est homo. The ensemble revealed itself as the surprise of the evening, as its power and nuance moved from preciously echoing whispers to overwhelming fortissimos.

After a false star in the opening Moderato of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, lacking in suspense due to the conductor’s fast tempi, Hermus redeemed himself in the Allegretto. In the wild scherzo, he increased the energy and highlighted the jarring, witty passages. In this quick movement, he finally captured his momentum continuing into the Largo, where two harps and the wind section enchanted with their fabulous interplay. In the final Allegro non troppo, Hermus sustained his momentum, revved up the orchestra’s engine, and launched into Shostakovich's thrilling climax. After the percussive, powerful finale, the audience responded with a standing ovation. For a memorial, it was very powerful concert indeed.