Das uvre von Otto Nicolai (1810-1849) umfasst ca. 235 Werke, von denen bislang lediglich zehn in modernen Ausgaben vorliegen. Zu sehr versperrte sein Erfolgsstück 'Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor' den Blick auf sein sonstiges Schaffen, dessen Schwerpunkte die Oper, das Lied und die Chormusik sind, so dass man eine umfassende Würdigung viel zu lange vernachlässigte. Das dürfte sich dank des Engagements des CARUS-Verlages womöglich bald ändern. Hier widmet man sich seiner absolut hörenswerten Chormusik und macht sie in modernen Ausgaben sowie in Einspielungen wieder zugänglich. In der Nachfolge Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdys als Leiter des Berliner Domchores vertonte Nicolai u.a. sechs Psalmen für Doppel-Chor a cappella. Auf der Grundlage seiner profunden Kenntnis der alten italienischen Vokalmusik (Nicolai verbrachte mehrere Jahre in Rom und Oberitalien) und seiner Erfahrung als Opernkomponist, schuf Nicolai in diesen Psalmen eine ganz eigene Klangsprache. Vier dieser Psalmen (Nr.31, 84, 97, 100) befinden sich neben weiteren geistlichen Chorwerken Nicolais auf dieser CD. Einmal mehr erweist sich Frieder Bernius hier als idealer Interpret auch für Chormusik-Raritäten des 19. Jahrhunderts.
RECORDING OF THE MONTH ...The disc opens with three extracts from the Liturgie Nr. 1 which dates from 1847 and was the result of a request of the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV who wanted to see the Prussian liturgy renewed. Nicolai composed the complete choral settings in the order of service; here only three of the twelve have been recorded... In 1848 the newly-built Friedenskirche in Sanssouci was consecrated. For that occasion Nicolai composed Psalms 84 and 100. The latter begins in five parts and is extended to eight parts in two choirs on the words ''Enter into his gates with thanksgiving'', to be sung after the great doors had been opened by the Bishop. The setting of Psalm 84 which is recorded here, was not sung on this occasion; Nicolai had replaced it at short notice with a piece on the same text for choir and wind. The 'a capella' setting is largely homophonic, and so is Psalm 31. This is again for eight voices, albeit not split into two choirs. As in many choral works it includes passages for solo voices. Psalm 97 is for six solo voices, whereas the tutti are in four parts. It is a mixture of polyphony and homophony, and includes some striking examples of text expression. These are effectively emphasized in this performance; ''Feuer'' (fire) and ''Blitze''(lightnings) are examples. In the middle we find an 'aria' for four voices, but in fact it is the soprano who has the main role here, with the three other voices providing harmonic support. The 'Offertorio Assumpta est Maria' is the only piece of sacred music which was ever published in Nicolai's lifetime. It dates from 1846 and was written for the anniversary of the consecration of the cathedral in Raab in Hungary. Nicolai was a Protestant, but that was no obstacle to him composing pieces for the Catholic liturgy now and then, although all his other compositions on a Latin text have an orchestral accompaniment. I have already mentioned Psalmus 54; it is on a Latin text as well, and - as we have seen - composed during Nicolai's stay in Italy. It was not written for the Catholic liturgy, though. In fact, it had no liturgical purpose at all, but was to be sung by the Berlin Singakademie. It was intended for a large choir, more likely in concert than in church. The scoring for ten voices is remarkable; stylistically it is strongly influenced by the polyphonic tradition with which Nicolai had become acquainted in Rome. Frieder Bernius is an adventurous conductor who is always on the look-out for neglected repertoire. That is certainly the case here: all but two of the compositions on this disc have never been recorded before. Moreover, Nicolai's choral music has been almost completely neglected. It is telling that in the article on the composer in New Grove hardly any attention is paid to this part of his oeuvre. That is unfair: this disc proves that his choral writing should be taken very seriously. If you like 19th-century choral music and can, for instance, appreciate the motets of Mendelssohn, you certainly will enjoy this disc. The Kammerchor Stuttgart is one of the best of its kind in the world. It has a large repertoire, ranging from the renaissance to contemporary music. I have heard many of their recordings and every one of them is a winner, whether Bach or Zelenka, Mendelssohn or Brahms. This disc is another. We hear a beautifully-balanced ensemble of fine voices, whose delivery is astonishing: the text is always clearly audible which cannot be taken fr granted with choral recordings. Most members of the choir sing the solo passages in various pieces, and they do so very well. Adventurous programming, superb singing: need I say more? --Johan van Veen - MusicWeb International
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 - MusicWeb International