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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.
Michael Cookson