Otto NICOLAI (1810-1849)
Psalms (Herr, auf dich traue ich)
Drei Stücke aus: Litugie No. 1 (1847) [7:45]*
Spruch: Herr, ich habe lieb (1848) [2:22]*
Psalm 100: Jauchzet dem Herrn, alle Welt (1848) [4:49]*
Psalm 31: Herr, auf dich traue ich (1849) [9:32]
Psalm 84: Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen (1848) [5:34] *
Psalm 97: Der Herr ist König (1849) [6:38]
Offerorium in Assumptione Beatae Mariae Virginis Op.38 (1846) [2:03] *
Psalm 54 (1834) [11:12]*
Kammerchor Stuttgart/Frieder Bernius
rec. October 2009, Immanuelskirche,Wuppertal (Psalms 32 and 97); February 2010 and October 2011, Ev. Kirche Gönningen (remainder)
* World Premiere Recordings
Texts and translations included
CARUS 83.299 [50:35]  

We tend to forget that Otto Nicolai, best known for his Merry Wives of Windsor, was not an operatic composer solely in his own time. In fact, the man who founded the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra was principally a church musician, who had begun his career in the Prussian embassy chapel in Rome. Thence he succeeded Mendelssohn, no less, as court and cathedral director in Berlin. This disc addresses this central fact of Nicolai's life by producing no fewer than five first-ever recordings, adding two items, previously unrecorded, from his Liturgie No.1. I suspect this will be a quiet revelation to those who have never heard his church music not because it is, in itself, earth-shattering but because it offers a historical corrective to the assumption that Nicolai was first and foremost a stage animal.
The church choir was rather more often his stage. The 1847 Liturgie is represented by three out of twelve short movements. The writing is rich and sonorous but with single voice lines to the fore as well. The keynote here is amplitude but simplicity. The moving directness he cultivates results in heightened expression, not least in the lovely Heilig, heilig, heilig. The brief gradual motet Herr, ich habe lieb is not much more than two minutes in length but enough to signal a comprehensive command of the medium.
Nicolai’s theatricality certainly seeped into his church music in the same way that, just occasionally, his church music could seep into his theatrical music. Or perhaps it would be truer to say that both these qualities were part of his musical make up, making seepage a questionable concept. His music admitted contrasts. His setting of Psalm 97 is certainly extrovert, its polyphonic bases kindled by a fiery, outward looking modernity. The Offertorium in Assumptione Beatae Mariae Virginis, Op.38 was the only one of these works to be published in Nicolai’s lifetime, a curious fact, but one perhaps explained by his very early death: he was 39 when he died, about the same age as his predecessor, Mendelssohn.
First and last works combine usefully in this disc. His first major composition was his setting of Psalm 54 for soloists and chorus. It’s heard here in its original form, less expansive than it subsequently became when Nicolai revised it. It’s very redolent of the influences he must have absorbed in Rome: Palestrina is the obvious name, and though it is in places very beautiful it’s not wholly representative of the music he was to compose over a decade later. His last composition was his 1848 setting of Psalm 31, a grave, romantic work that pursues archaic polyphony in its slow-moving and sustained length.
The music, which has been excellently recorded, is sung with great skill, excellent intonation, and clarity by the choir and directed with notable sensitivity by Frieder Bernius. It all makes for an invaluable revaluation of Nicolai’s place in German choral music.
Jonathan Woolf
An invaluable revaluation of Nicolai’s place in German choral music.