Otto Nicolai may be remembered only for the
opera Merry Wives of Windsor
and as the first conductor
of what became the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, but had an early
death at 39 not intervened, he clearly was a force to be reckoned
with as a skilful and talented composer. His works, seven operas
and a dozen in the instrumental and choral genres, span the two
decades of the 1830s and 1840s. The locations of his musical activity
were Berlin, Rome and Vienna, so Mendelssohn, Bellini and Donizetti
were contemporary influences with Weber and Beethoven inevitably
casting their shadows.
Following the earlier MDG disc (Volume 1
) containing his Symphony in D and a Fantasy with variations on themes from Bellini’s opera Norma
for piano and orchestra, we have here a follow-up of bits and pieces, overtures for chorus and orchestra, and another set of variations but this time from the same composer’s Norma
. The soloist - here accompanied by string orchestra by an unknown hand from Nicolai’s original with piano - now a clarinettist, which brings us much closer to the pyrotechnics of the coloratura soprano. The excellent clarinettist, Johannes Pieper, undertakes this role. It’s a work which provides a vivid illustration of how such transcriptions fed popular taste in the nineteenth century. The gem of the selection is the overture to the opera, the subject of which is Shakespeare’s play. It may have much Weber in it, but it also sets a path for the Strauss family to follow. Quite why this opera should be so popular in Germany (with Magic Flute
and Hansel and Gretel
it is a first experience of opera for many children there), yet despite its quintessentially English subject matter, remains one which has never caught on in the UK I do not know. Two productions I have conducted - a concert performance for a private club and a fully staged one for one London’s music colleges - delighted both performers and audiences alike. One has to ignore the unassailable greatness of the later work on the same subject, Verdi’s Falstaff
. As far as that composer is concerned, a further irony had already arisen when Nabucco
, originally intended for Nicolai in 1841 was instead preferred to Verdi, so he wrote Il proscritto
instead which turned out a complete flop.
The opening and closing overtures on this disc, containing choruses based on traditional Lutheran chorales, reflect the growing interest in Bach and Handel in the 1830s culminating in Mendelssohn’s revival of St Matthew Passion
. Nicolai takes the opportunity to flaunt his contrapuntal skills with fugues and choral preludes on the respective melodies leading to grand climaxes. Performers, whether orchestral or choral, enter into the spirit and style of music which, despite the lean amount of music provided - totalling just under 50 minutes - is worthy of committing to a disc, which has clean, spacious sound. On balance, my only gripe is the too-distant, and therefore indistinct chorus.