Otto NICOLAI (1810-1849)
Sacred Choral Music
Mass No. 1 in D major (1832) [31:39]
Liturgy No. 2 [5:23]
Psalm 13 [7:51]
Pater noster, Op. 33 [5:21]
Ecce enim Deus, fragment from Psalm 54 [2:22]
Psalm No. 84 [5:41]
Sarah Schnier (soprano), Alexandra Thomas (mezzo-soprano), Wolfgang
Klose (tenor), Lucas Singer (bass)
Consono Chamber Choir,
Essen Folkwang Chamber Orchestra/Harald Jers
rec. 28-29 April 2012, Philharmonie, Essen, Germany
CARUS 83.341 [58:24]
It is natural when seeing or hearing Otto Nicolai’s
name immediately to think of his opera The Merry Wives of Windsor
written in 1845/49. It’s still performed today and I recall the
overture being played by the BBC Philharmonic under Gianandrea Noseda
at a Manchester concert I attended a couple of seasons ago. A version
of the Shakespeare comedy, The Merry Wives was Nicolai’s
major success. Its première took place in 1849 at Berlin a mere
two months before his untimely death.
Clearly there is a lot more to the Prussian-born Nicolai than this and
as a composer of over two hundred works it’s a shame that only
a small proportion has been recorded. For much of his life he composed
considerable amounts of vocal music including sacred choral music. This
passion started right from his association with Carl Friedrich Zelter
early in his career and subsequently in positions as organist in the
mid-1830s at the Prussian Embassy chapel in Rome and from 1847 as Mendelssohn’s
successor as director of music at the Berlin Cathedral.
Composed in 1832, the main work on the release is the Mass No. 1
in D major. Cast in six movements it is a Roman Catholic Latin mass
that Nicolai, a Protestant, wrote for the consecration of Poznań
Cathedral. Twelve years later he considerably revised it for a further
performance at the Vienna Court Chapel. Every movement is worthy of
interest being highly consistent in quality, quite beautiful in places,
and often moving. The general tone is uplifting, expressive and highly
reverential. I could hear occasional suggestions of Italian music of
the Renaissance such as Palestrina and also Baroque composer Pergolesi.
This came as no surprise as Nicolai spent some years in Italy. Despite
its success Nicolai wasn’t able to find a publisher for the Mass.
Receiving its first recording here is the Liturgy No. 2,written
to a German text: Ehre sei dem Vater (Glory be to the Father).
This short unaccompanied work in four parts was intended for the Royal
Cathedral Court in Berlin. Designed in twelve movements it is presented
here in five movements with the liturgical responses not included. In
1847 the Liturgy was given to the Prussian Queen Elisabeth on
her name day at the Charlottenburg Palace; then located outside Berlin.
Another work receiving its first recording is the Psalm 13 a
setting of German text Herr, wie lange willst du mich (How
long wilt thou forget me). Composed in 1846 during Nicolai’s
tenure as Kapellmeister at the Vienna Court Opera it is a single movement
for four soloists and piano accompaniment. In eight parts, the unaccompanied
Latin Pater noster (Our Father) is a published work that
was written in Bologna in 1836. The composer dedicated the score to
King Frederick William IV of Prussia.
The unaccompanied Ecce enim Deus adjuvant me (Behold God,
is my helper) is a single verse fragment from a much larger-scale
work, a ten part setting of Psalm 54. It was composed at Rome in 1834.
The final work here is a German setting of Psalm 84 Wie lieblich
sind deine Wohnungen (How lovely is your dwelling place).
Scored for double choir there is accompaniment here from two trumpets,
three trombones and organ. During his tenure as Kapellmeister to the
Prussian Court and Cathedral Nicolai composed the setting in 1848 for
the consecration of the newly built Friedenskirche in the Palace
grounds of Sanssouci Park, Potsdam. Unusually there is an additional
soprano part appended to the first choir.
On this Carus release Harald Jers’ choral and orchestral forces
are certainly not heavyweight in number. The Consono Chamber Choir seems
to be around 34 strong and the Essen Folkwang Chamber Orchestra draws
from around 30 players including the pianist/organist.All four
soloists are German born and bred. They sing impressively and their
voices are nicely contrasted. On a few occasions there was some unsteadiness
especially from the soprano and mezzo but they soon recovered. Soprano
Sarah Schnier has firm projection yet her tone remains attractive and
smooth, and Wolfgang Klose’s incisive tenor sounds in splendid
condition. There is a rather unusual character to Alexandra Thomas’s
mezzo that I soon warmed to. I was bowled over by the marvellous rich
bass voice of Lucas Singer; although rock-steady it remains fluid and
smooth, and he communicates an eloquent sense of reverence. If he can
maintain this level of performance a successful future is guaranteed.
The splendid choir perform with fine unison yet still convey a highly
appealing tonal character with a sense of prayerful respect for the
text. The orchestra play remarkably well with proficiency and commitment.
Violist Laura Krause and cellist Mladen Miloradovic address their solo
parts impressively. In addition I felt the brass section that comprises
two horns, two trumpets and three trombones play remarkably well displaying
impressive intonation and pleasing timbre. With a dedicated approach
Harald Jers does a splendid job in keeping his combined forces together.
I was generally satisfied with the overall clarity of the sound. However,
with the combined choral and orchestra forces in the Mass No. 1
the forte passages are a touch fierce but nothing too problematic.
A disc recently released on Profil of Suppé’s neglected
and generally forgotten Requiem Mass has created a great deal
of interest. Written just over twenty years earlier, Nicolai’srarely
heard Mass No. 1 is in a similar vein and is certainly worth
investigating. Lovers of sacred choral music looking for unusual repertoire
of excellent quality should be in their element.