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Sigmund VON NEUKOMM (1778 - 1858): Requiem

Cantaréunion, Ensemble vocal de l'Océan Indien (Jean-Louis Tavan); La Grande Écurie et la Chambre du Roy
Dir: Jean-Claude MALGOIRE

rec: July 6, 2008 (live), Sarrebourg, Église Saint Martin de Hoff
K617 - K617210 (© 2009) (59'25")

Jean-Luc Machicot, Graham Nicholson, cornet; Emmanuel Padieu, Florent Maupetit, horn; Jean-Marie Bonche, Fred Lucchi, trombone; Sylvain Bilote, ophicleide; Jean-Louis Tavan, tam-tam; Laurent Stewart, organ

Sigismund Neukomm, or Sigismund Ritter von Neukomm as his real name is, was one of the most remarkable and colourful characters of the music scene in the classical and early romantic era. He started as a pupil of Johann Michael Haydn, and later had close ties with his older brother Franz Joseph. During his life he came into contact with almost every composer of fame and also many prominent people from the world of politics.

He travelled throughout Europe, didn't stay very long at one place, and even considered visiting America, which didn't happen. He was much in demand as an improviser at the organ, and because of his knowledge of the organ he collaborated with Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, who laid the foundation of the symphonic French organ. Neukomm, almost forgotten today, was a celebrity in his own time. Although it seems he never has met Mozart, he regularly performed his music. In 1842 he conducted the Coronation Mass and the Requiem at the occasion of the unveiling of Mozart's monument in Salzburg. And during his stay in Brazil Mozart's Requiem was performed in Rio de Janeiro in 1819, and for that occasion Neukomm composed a setting of the 'Libera me'.

The oeuvre of Neukomm isn't catalogued yet, but it is assumed he has written about 2,000 works. Among them are 50 masses, three funeral services and four Requiems. The funeral service recorded here dates from 1838, when Neukomm was living in France. It is not known for which occasion it was written. It consists of four sections: the Requiem Mass, the penitential psalm 'De profundis' (Psalm 129/130), a funeral march and the penitential psalm 'Miserere mei, Deus' (Psalm 50/51). The Requiem and 'De profundis' were to be performed in church, whereas the 'Miserere' and the funeral march were to be performed during the procession which accompanied the corpse to the cemetery.

The funeral service is written for three voices - here tenors and basses - without instrumental accompaniment, or with organ ad libitum. During the procession wind instruments were to be used: cornet, horns, trombones and ophicleide. The original manuscript of this work contains some very detailed instructions in regard to the performance. To give one example, quoted in the booklet: "If this work is performed by a complement of at least thirty-six voices, these should be divided into two choirs. A third of these voices should be used for the first choir (1), the remaining two-thirds will form the second or 'large' choir (2). The composer has planned this layout both to allow the singers time to rest, and to obtain dynamic nuances. The passages marked (1,2) should be sung by the two choirs together".

There are also indications as to the addition of instruments, if that is considered necessary, and Neukomm then specifically indicates which instruments should play colla parte with which voices. And then he adds that the first and second tenors may be reinforced by women's and children's voices.

For the 'Miserere' and the funeral march he also gives some instructions. These two pieces are intermingled in that the funeral march is to be repeated after every verse of the 'Miserere'. "Each time the funeral march is finished after a short interval, the principal conductor, who will walk at the head of the singers, will sound five strokes on a tam-tam or bell tuned to F to indicate the tempo (...)". The tam-tam (or gong) is an instrument of unknown origin. It is assumed it was first used in Western art music by François-Joseph Gossec in his funeral music for Mirebeau in 1791. During the 19th century it appeared in operas by Bellini and Meyerbeer. Another curious instrument is the ophicleide. It was invented in France by Jean Hilaire Asté around 1817, and became the foundation of the brass section of the romantic orchestra. It was later replaced by the tuba.

This description may suffice to get an impression of the character of this work as well as the way the composer treated his compositions. The music of the Requiem is unspectacular and rather curious than original or compelling. It is mainly the whole structure of this service and the way it should be performed which is very intriguing. And therefore this disc deserves the attention of everyone who has an interest in early 19th-century music.

In the performance only 29 voices are used - and not 36 - but the choir is still divided into two sections. And during this live performance the procession took place within the church rather than in open air. But then, it would be hardly possible to truly reconstruct the event as it has probably taken place and to implement all instructions given by Neukomm. I think this disc gives a fair impression of what the event will have been like for which this music was written.

I wasn't always impressed with the singing of the choir which is mostly alright without being outstanding. The instruments give some special colour to these performances. In fact, the best part of this disc is the funeral march - which is quite moving - and the 'Miserere'.

Only recently I reviewed Malgoire's recording of Neukomm's Missa Solemnis pro Die acclamationis Johannis VI which, musically speaking, is much more interesting. But together these two discs deliver a nice portrayal of a most fascinating character in the European music scene of the early 19th century.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

La Grande Écurie et la Chambre du Roy

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