Notes and Editorial Reviews
This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.
R E V I E W S
Having elsewhere in this issue written of the ubiquity in 18th-century sacred music drama of the story of Judith and her gory dispatch of the Assyrian general Holofernes (see Scarlatti La Giuditta), here it is again in one of the last settings of Metastasio’s immensely successful libretto.
Its composer is now little known, but in his day, Johann Gottlieb Naumann (1741–1801) was extremely successful and respected. Born near Dresden, Naumann received his early training at the city’s Kreuzschule. Thereafter, he made the almost obligatory journey to Italy, where he was encouraged by Tartini, Hasse, and
Padre Martini. On his return to Dresden, Naumann was appointed second church composer to the Catholic court chapel on the recommendation of Hasse. Two further visits to Italy followed, several of Naumann’s opere serie being successfully produced there, mostly in Venice to librettos by Metastasio. In 1776, he was appointed Kapellmeister in Dresden, a city whose recent glorious Augustan artistic epoch was already a fast fading memory. Doubtless, it was the lack of opportunity to present anything but modest productions of opera buffa in Dresden that led Naumann first to Stockholm, then to Copenhagen, in both of which capitals he undertook reform of the opera and made an important contribution to the establishment of a national school. In 1786, Naumann returned to Dresden, where he was appointed Oberkapellmeister for life. During his final 15 years, he had two operas produced in Berlin, bur most of his energies were devoted to concert series in Dresden and the production of sacred music (Mozart heard a mass of Naumann’s during his visit to Dresden in 1789, succinctly dismissing it as “very poor stuff”), in particular a series of Lenten oratorios for the Dresden court.
There are seven of these late oratorios, of which Betulia liberata was the last to be performed, surprisingly in 1805, nearly four years after the composer’s death. According to a newspaper account after the premiere (quoted in the excellent notes), the delay can be accounted for by Naumann’s ill health in 1786, the year he was commissioned to produce Betulia. Although he managed to complete the score, it was too late for performance that Easter; it was replaced by a setting of the same libretto by the Kapellmeister Joesph Schuster. Naumann presented his score to the Elector of Saxony, who produced it for a rapturously received performance nearly 10 years later. In my review of the Scarlatti, I suggest a possible religious reason for the popularity of the Judith story; here, the notes plausibly suggest a political motive for the unlikely reappearance of Naumann’s score. In 1805, Saxony was under threat from Napoleon, so the story of a nation relieved by the actions of a heroic woman from the threat of assimilation by a powerful tyrant would have had strong allegorical and propaganda resonance.
Unlike La Giuditta or Vivaldi’s Juditha triumphans, Metastasio’s libretto eschews dramatic action in favor of pointing the religious moral that those of strong faith will ultimately overcome vicissitude. Holofernes never appears, the drama of his death being recounted by Judith in an accompanied recitative after her return to the suffering Israelites. In keeping with changing tastes toward Metastasio’s poetry, Naumann cut this to a minimum, excising some of the gorier detail. Nevertheless, it is one of the most impressive sections of a score that, in the main, conveys the image of a thoroughly competent composer, if hardly one divinely inspired. Much more of the original text was also cut, not least for the good reason that Naumann set so much of it as accompanied rather than as swifter moving plain recitative. Surprisingly, from the opening of part II, he retained in full the long theological argument between the Bethulian prince Ozias and Carmi, the dissident sent by Holfernes to the Israelites as punishment. Here, the plain recitative is delivered with too little regard for rhetoric, highlighting a general lack of dramatic purpose evident throughout. While Hermann Max, as is customary, conducts a well-executed and thoroughly idiomatic and stylish performance, it is not the first time he has appeared to me to be a better conductor of non-dramatic music.
Naumann’s arias betray the Italian influence one might have expected from a composer with his background, but, in general, they are more distinguished by colorful touches from a wind group that includes clarinets in addition to the expected flutes and oboes than by any particularly distinctive vocal writing, pleasantly mellifluous though that often is. The cast, mainly familiar, is solidly reliable, the principal kudos going to Salomé Haller’s brightly characterful Amital, but Nele Gramss’s Juditha, although perfectly well sung, to my mind lacks both the vocal color and dramatic strength to do full justice to the role.
One need compare only the choruses that end each of the two parts to realize that Naumann’s Betulia liberata cannot compare with the 15-year-old Mozart’s unperformed version of 1771, uneven and immature though that is. Nonetheless, it is a worthy example of the late 18th-century oratorio that is well worth the attention of anyone interested in the repertoire.
FANFARE: Brian Robins
Works on This Recording
Betulia Liberata by Johann Gottlieb Naumann
Hans Jörg Mammel (Tenor),
Salome Haller (Soprano),
Nele Gramss (Soprano),
Markus Schäfer (Tenor),
Harry Van der Kamp (Bass)
Das Kleine Konzert
Written: by 1799; Sweden
Venue: Studio Stolbergerstrasse, Cologne
Length: 95 Minutes 31 Secs.
Notes: Studio Stolbergerstrasse, Cologne (04/23/2004 - 04/28/2004)
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