Classical CD Reviews

NICOLAI: Mass No. 1 in D; Liturgie No. 2; Psalm 13; Pater noster; Ecce enim Deus; Psalm 84 – Carus

A nice change of pace and a different take on a composer we really don’t know that well.

Published on September 21, 2013

NICOLAI: Mass No. 1 in D; Liturgie No. 2; Psalm 13; Pater noster, Op. 33; Ecce enim Deus; Psalm 84 – Carus 83.341, 58:24 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

I can’t speak for anyone else, but aside from The Merry Wives of Windsor and a few other opera overtures, I don’t know much of Otto Nicolai’s music. Not that there is a lot to know—his 39 years (he was felled by a stroke) didn’t allow for too much considering his other positions (he was a leading figure in the concert life of Vienna). Only towards the very end did he establish himself in Berlin, curiously being offered the position vacated by Mendelssohn at the Berlin Cathedral, and ended up as the head of the Berlin State Opera the last year of his life. Talent was never an issue, as even his two symphonies were accepted in their time—where are they now?

So what a surprise to hear this wonderful disc of some really ingratiating and highly devotional church music. He is not tempted at all to bring the opera into the church—these works are in no way dramatic monologues or anything even remotely resembling that which Verdi would create. But they are full of lyricism and extremely deferential to the human voice. The psalm settings especially have a guarded beauty that simply lifts the spirit and mollifies the temper. But the Mass is on another level altogether—the product of a 22-year-old who was reunified with his father in Poznan after accepting the commission for a large scale work. But Nicolai was not entirely happy with it, and after another 13 years he completely reworked it for the Vienna Court Chapel for which he received a hefty fee.

Business, however, was business, and he was not against setting religious music for other denominations. Particularly noteworthy is his Protestant Psalm 13, a moving bit of penitential pleading in times of persecution and trouble, and in fact when he wrote it he was in bad health and suffering the pangs of others beneath him just waiting for his removal because of inability to fulfill his duties, or to oust him in another manner. The work is heartfelt and sincere, as are all of the settings on this disc.

The performances are excellent, though I thought the four soloists a little wobbly vibrato-wise; the choir is certainly not, and the orchestra plays with obvious devotion in this most rewarding music. The acoustics are good, provided by the Philharmonie Essen. Recommended as a nice change of pace and a different take on a composer we really don’t know that well.

—Steven Ritter

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