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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
La Betulia liberata, K118 (74c) (1771)
Margot Oitzinger (alto) - Giuditta (Judith)
Christian Zenker (tenor) - Ozia
Marelize Gerber (soprano) - Amital
Markus Volpert (baritone) - Achior
Ulrike Hofbauer (soprano) - Cabri
Barbara Kraus (soprano) - Carmi
L’Orfeo Barockorchester/Michi Gaigg
rec. Stiftskirche Waldhausen, Upper Austria, 6-9 August 2012. DSD
CDs in hardback booklet with texts and translations
CHANNEL CLASSICS CC72590 [63:01 + 59:51]

Mozart’s teenage music suffers only by comparison with his mature works. Here is music that would hardly shame a mature composer and it needs no gimmicks to make it attractive. I’m far more likely to listen again to these CDs than to watch the Naïve DVD of Bastien et Bastienne with its misguided attempts to make the work more palatable - review.
Betulia liberata (Bethulia set free), described as an azione sacra in due parti, is an oratorio composed by the 15-year-old composer to a text by Metastasio and based on the biblical Book of Judith. Leopold Mozart seems to have believed that it had been commissioned for performance in Padua, but the precise circumstances are unclear; in the event the Duke of Aragon appears to have preferred a setting of the same text by Mysliveček. There have been sporadic recordings, but there is only one current rival in the catalogue, a budget-price set on Brilliant Classics, not the one which Robert Hugill reviewed as part of a 6-CD offering on that label. Peter Schreier’s recording for Philips is available as a download only, from 7digital.com.
That Brilliant Classics 6-CD recording came without libretto; I’m not sure if its 2-CD replacement has one, but I doubt it’s anything like as luxurious as the thick hardback booklet in which the Channel Classics discs are housed, though I shall have something to say about the English translation of the notes in that book. The other advantage of the new recording arises from the availability of multi-channel sound from the SACD tracks.
The story of Judith slaying Holofernes, general of the besieging Assyrian army, has inspired a large number of artistic productions, ranging from the Anglo-Saxon Abbot Ælfric via various renaissance paintings and Vivaldi - Juditha Triumphans: see my review for various recordings - to Mozart and his contemporaries. The Metastasio libretto which Mozart was particularly popular, despite the fact that it sticks rigidly to the Aristotelian unities, which means that the decapitation of Holofernes is only narrated.
Clearly any performance stands or falls by the quality of the principal character, Judith, and the nearest that I have to a benchmark comes in the form of Aria #8, Parto inerme (CD1 track 17 of the Channel Classics CD), sung by Marie-Nicole Lemieux on a Naïve album of arias by Gluck, Haydn and Mozart (V5264). Here, as throughout, Michi Gaigg sets a fairly brisk tempo - brisker than Peter Schreier, too - but still gives Margot Oitzinger plenty of space to express her faith in God as she goes forth unarmed and unafraid. Oitzinger also has a lighter voice than Lemieux, who tends to sound ever so slightly plummy.
Where the Channel Classics gains, too, is in the use of period instruments; light and airy Le Violons du Roy may be on Naïve but, despite the archaic spelling, they use modern instruments. Much as I enjoyed the more studied account of this aria on Naïve, Oitzinger and Gaigg emerge as winners for me and this track leads on to a rousing finale of Part One.
There’s a Berlin Classics recording (0091752BC) on which Edith Mathis sings Aminta’s Aria #11, Quel nocchier che in gran procella (CD2, track 4 on Channel Classics). Here, too, Michi Gaigg’s tempo is slightly faster than Bernhard Klee’s. Marelize Gerber may have a less famous name than that of Edith Mathis, but there’s little to choose between them and again I incline slightly towards the tempo on the new recording.
The other singers are also very good. In the stillness after the storm of the narration of the death of Holfernes, Christian Zenker’s rendition of Achior’s Aria #13, Te adoro (CD2, tr.8) strikes the right note before the exultant finale.
I’ve mentioned conductor Michi Gaigg en passant as setting fairly fast, dramatic tempi. It’s her guiding hand that ultimately makes this recording well worth considering. Terry Barfoot thought that her earlier recording of Mozart tenor arias with Christophe Prégardien was fresh and direct and had much to commend it - review. I not only happily second that, I’d also go up a notch or two and say that I can’t imagine a better presentation of this music. That said, the dramatic account of the overture from Concerto Köln on Capriccio C71003 - 3:40 against Gaigg’s by no means sedate 4:03 and Peter Schreier’s 3:56 - raises the intriguing possibility of an even more cogent account.
I listened to these discs via the CD tracks and, in stereo only, via the SACD tracks. The former is so good that SACD actually adds very little on this occasion.
Luxurious the booklet may be but the notes would have benefited from better proof-reading, preferably by an Anglophone. To translate La Betulia liberata as ‘The liberated Bethulia’ (p.8) betrays a lack of understanding of English usage. I’ll treat ‘the unit of action’ (p.11) as a straight typo for ‘unity’, but I really don’t know what ‘the Assyrians were at the most Babylonians’ (p.11) is supposed to mean. That ‘at the most’ is used to translate bestenfalls in the original German, best rendered here as ‘most likely’. The Räte (counsellors) Cabri and Carmi become ‘councils’ in the English notes. The English translation of the libretto is much more idiomatic.
Not the most urgent choice for those who have yet to get to know Mozart’s mature masterpieces but all concerned here make this well worthwhile for confirmed Mozartians. As an added incentive I note that several online suppliers are offering this set at an attractive price, currently around £18.
Brian Wilson