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Otto NICOLAI (1810-1849)
Mass No.1 in D major (1832 rev 1844-45) [31:39]
Liturgie No.2 (1847) [5:23]
Psalm No.13 (1846) [7:51]
Pater noster, Op.33 (1836) [5:21]
Ecce enim Deus; fragment from Psalm 54 (1834) [2:22]
Psalm 84 (1848) [5:41]
Wolfgang Klose (tenor): Sarah Schnier (soprano): Alexandra Thomas (alto): Lucas Singer (bass); Consono Chamber Choir; Essen Folkwang Chamber Orchestra/Harald Jers
rec. April 2012, Philharmonie Essen
Texts and translations included
CARUS 83.341 [58:24]

Otto Nicolai’s sacred music has neither been as often performed nor as often recorded as his more popular works. It’s not simply The Merry Wives of Windsor that has vanquished his legacy in this respect, but in fact almost everything else, so much so in fact that this Carus disc restores three of the six works in first-ever recordings.
 
Nicolai wrote a capella and orchestrally-accompanied sacred music from his early twenties onwards. The biggest work in this recital is the Mass in D major, which has been recorded before. It owes its genesis to the rapprochement between Nicolai and his father - they had not seen each other for six years, as a result of the young Otto having rebelled against the authoritarian teaching practices of his father. By all biographical accounts the reunion was very successful and Nicolai duly produced a Mass for performance in Poznan Cathedral in 1832. Twelve years later, whilst living in Vienna, he revised the work, taking advantage of his intervening Italian travels and his increasing command of operatic music. As a Protestant working in Catholic Vienna his position was always precarious but the work was accepted for performance - but not publication. It’s certainly a discreetly yet warmly orchestrated Mass. Nicolai eschews high winds and the string writing remains discreet. The horns bathe the patina with consoling richness but without grandiloquence. The solo voices blend beautifully with the chorus and where Nicolai uses the small orchestral forces soloistically, such as the role for first violin, it’s to prefigure solo vocal entries. Everything is beautifully shaped, lyrically attractive and - where appropriate - celebratory.
 
The Liturgie No.2 dates from 1847, two years after the revision of the Mass and two years before Nicolai’s untimely death. Written in four parts it’s appropriately intimate in scale, and beautifully refined in execution. Only the concluding Heilig is extended, the whole piece lasting just five minutes. This is its first recording. The Psalm 13, completed the previous year, is scored for voices, chorus and piano and it too is receiving a premiere recording. It’s supposed in the notes that this is an autobiographical work reflecting Nicolai’s frail health and turbulent time as Kapellmeister of the Vienna Court Opera. If it is indeed a self-lament it’s highly accomplished and does lighten in tone. Psalm 84 is for double-choir though only as a result of the caprice of the Prussian King who demanded it of Nicolai, who had merely intended a more simple setting. He had to re-write the work to conform. There are hints of Allegri in its rich amplitude, and its deliberate archaisms are accompanied by a richness hard to resist. Ecce enim Deus is a lovely, succinct and Italianate setting, barely two and a half minutes in length. Pater noster, Op.33 was dedicated to Friedrich Wilhelm IV, the aforementioned King of Prussia, and the eight-part work is suffused with more Italian influence, no doubt as a result of his studies and sojourn in Bologna.
 
The performances are very beautifully done, sensitively directed and finely recorded. This is a much unexplored area of the repertoire and Carus has here made a positive step toward reclamation of Nicolai’s surviving sacred works.
 
Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: Michael Cookson


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