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Otto NICOLAI (1810 - 1849): "Herr, auf dich traue ich - Psalms"

Kammerchor Stuttgart
Dir: Frieder Bernius

rec: Oct 3 - 4, 2009, Wuppertal, Immanuelskirchea; Feb 16, 2010 & Oct 18 - 19, 2011, Gönningen, Evangelische Kircheb
Carus - 83.299 (© 2012) (50'30")
Liner-notes: E (abridged)/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover & track-list

Der 31. Psalm (Herr, auf dich traue ich); Der 84. Psalm (Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen); Der 97. Psalm (Der Herr ist König); Der 100. Psalm (Jauchzet dem Herrn, alle Welt); Herr, ich habe lieb; Liturgie Nr. 1 (Herr, sei uns gnädig/Kyrie eleison; Ehre sei Gott/Und Friede; Heilig, heilig, heilig); Offertorium in Assumptione Beatae Mariae Virginis, op. 38; Psalmus 54 (Deus, in nomine tuo)

To most music-lovers Otto Nicolai is exclusively known for his comic opera Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor. It is one of just five operas from his pen. In comparison his output in other genres, in particular sacred and secular vocal music, is much larger. Historically his importance lies in particular in the fact that he founded the Vienna Philharmonic Concerts which later would lead to the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. At an early age he came into contact with Carl Friedrich Zelter, who was the director of the Berlin Singakademie. He received an education in singing, piano and composition. At that time he composed his first works, songs for voice and piano and choral music.

The closeness to the Singakademie - to which Felix Mendelssohn-Batholdy also belonged - had a considerable influence on his development as a composer. So had his stay in Rome, where from 1834 to 1836 he acted as organist of the chapel of the Prussian embassy. He took lessons in counterpoint with Giuseppe Baini, director of the papal chapel. This brought him into contact with the polyphonic tradition, and in particular the music of Palestrina. He was appointed as maestro compositore onorario of the Accademia Filarmonica in Bologna, after having submitted his Psalmus 54. For several years he worked as opera conductor in Italy and in Vienna, where in 1842 he took the intiative with the Vienna Philharmonic Concerts. In 1847 he became Kapellmeister of the Royal Opera House and director of the cathedral choir in Berlin, as successor of Mendelssohn. In the latter capacity he composed many sacred choral works, some of which have been recorded here.

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. Herr, ich habe lieb sets verses from Psalms 26 and 95: "Lord, I have loved the habitation of thy house". It is a gradual motet which was part of the liturgy since its reform of 1843. However, this piece was written for the birthday of the King and may have been only performed in his private rooms.

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 at 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, which are effectively emphasized in this performance, such as "Feuer" (fire) and "Blitze" (lightnings). 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 Offertorium in Assumptione Beatae Mariae Virginis 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 a 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 for 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 (© 2013)

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Kammerchor Stuttgart

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