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Johann Gottlieb NAUMANN (1741 - 1801): Betulia Liberata, oratorio in 2 parts

Nele Gramß (Giuditta), Salomé Haller (Amital), soprano; Hans Jörg Mammel (Carmi), Markus Schäfer (Ozia), tenor; Harry van der Kamp (Achior), bass
Rheinische Kantorei, Das Kleine Konzert
Dir: Hermann Max

rec: April 23 - 28, 2004, Cologne, Studio Stolbergstrasse
CPO - 777 063-2 (2 CDs) (© 2006) (1.35'31")

Betulia Liberata is a well-known libretto by the most prominent poet and librettist of the 18th century, Pietro Metastasio. It is based on the book Judith, one of the Apocrypha of the Bible. The subject was used by many composers during the 17th and 18th centuries. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1771) and Johann Gottlieb Naumann (1796) are only two of many composers of the 18th century who used Metastasio's libretto.

Naumann was the dominant musical personality in Dresden between Johann Adolf Hasse (1699 – 1783) and Carl Maria von Weber (1786 – 1826). Here he also received his first musical education at the Kreuzschule. As a teenager he travelled to Italy to broaden his horizon, where he met, among others, Giuseppe Tartini and 'Padre' Giovanni Battista Martini. After his return to Dresden he became chamber and church composer in 1765 and Kapellmeister in 1776. Ten years later he was appointed Oberkapellmeister, a clear sign of the great appreciation by Prince Elector Friedrich August III. It was therefore no surprise that the Prince Elector himself asked Naumann to write an oratorio for Lenten season in 1796. But Naumann, being in poor health, refused. As a result the oratorio for that year was written by Joseph Schuster (1748 – 1812), Saxon court music director since 1787. Naumann nevertheless started to work on the oratorio, which was completed shortly before Pentecost. It was therefore not performed, but was kept by the Prince Elector.

But nine years later, four years after Naumann's death, the oratorio was finally given its first performance. The reasons for this were twofold: Naumann was still held in high esteem years after his death, and the subject of the oratorio was very appropriate in regard to the political situation. The Electorate of Saxony was under constant threat from France, and in 1806 its resistance finally broke down. Betulia Liberata is about the city of Betulia in Israel which is beleaguered by the Assyrians. Its situation is becoming more precarious by the day, and the inhabitants begin to consider surrender. But then one of them, Judith, announces she has a plan to liberate the city. She leaves Betulia and visits Holofernes, the captain of the Assyrians. She has dinner with him, and when he is drunk she kills him with his own sword and takes his head with her to show it to the people. It is the beginning of the end of the siege of the city. Metastasio didn't have any political situation in mind while writing the libretto, and many composers in the 18th century have used it without any political motive either, but in this case it is hard not to connect the oratorio's subject with the actual political situation. The same subject had been used by Vivaldi (Judita triumphans) in 1716, when Venice was threatened by the Turks.

Considering the change in taste during the last quarter of the 18th century it may be surprising that Naumann used this libretto, as Metastasio is mainly associated with a time in which musical life was dominated by royal and aristocratic courts. But Dresden was one of the places where not that much had changed: as late as 1821 another oratorio on a libretto by Metastasio was performed. Naumann pays tribute to the changing taste of the time, though: not only is the libretto abridged – he omitted several arias which are included in, for instance, Mozart's setting and he made also cuts in the recitatives -, he also breaks with the pattern of an endless sequence of (secco) recitatives and arias by creating larger scenes in which recititatives grade into an aria or vice versa. Some recitatives are interrupted by choruses, and there are a couple of arias for solo and chorus. Almost all recitatives are 'accompagnato': the voice is supported by the orchestra. Only in some passages where no action is involved – for example the dispute about religious matters between Ozias and Achior – Naumann makes use of the secco recitative.

One could argue that this oratorio is not really dramatic. For instance there is no direct confrontation between Judith and Holofernes: the latter even doesn't appear in the oratorio (as in Vivaldi's oratorio mentioned before). What has happened is told by Judith, and is therefore considerably more static. The most dramatic part is at the start, when Ozias, the governor of Betulia, is accused of inaction by the noblewoman Amital, who pleads for surrender. It is the way the different protagonists deal with the situation which is the main attraction of this oratorio.

The performance doesn't make the mistake to try to make this work more dramatic than it is. Ozias is sung by Markus Schäfer, whose voice is not to everyone's liking judging by the reviews of some of his recordings, probably because tends to be a bit sharp. But I mostly like his performances, because he articulates very well and differentiates very convincingly in the realisation of his part here. Salomé Haller gives a good portrayal of his critic, Amital, who is a bit of a spitfire. Judith is quite different: quiet and unflappable, with a great trust in God. Nele Gramß gives a fine account of her role. Her report of her actions after her return into the city could probably have been a little more declamatory. Harry van der Kamp (Achior) is especially impressive in this respect, when he reports how he has been left by Holofernes, and in his dispute with Ozias. Hans Jörg Mammel has a rather small role as Carmi, a leader of the people, which he realises well. The Rheinische Kantorei is perhaps a bit small with just 16 voices, but they sing the choruses very well. After all, they are one of the finest choirs in the early music scene. And the orchestra, almost always in action during this oratorio, validates its reputation by giving powerful and colourful performances of the orchestral part.

With this recording Hermann Max continues his exploration of the German oratorio of the 18th and early 19th centuries. It has resulted in a series of fine recordings, like the one reviewed here. I hope he has the opportunity to continue, and hopefully this will result in recordings of some of the other 11 oratorios by Johann Gottlieb Naumann, who was an interesting and very fine composer, as Betulia Liberata testifies.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Die Rheinische Kantorei

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