Nocturne in C,
Quintet in C,
No. 3 in E♭,
Classic C Ens of the German Op Berlin
CPO 777621 (56:00)
When it comes to Sigismund Ritter von Neukomm (1778–1858), for once, CPO didn’t get the scoop. Quite a few recordings of this astonishingly prolific composer’s works are listed, and several have been reviewed in these pages. And when I say “prolific,” I’m talking well over 1,200 in a catalog that’s not even complete. That’s getting up into Vivaldi, Telemann, and Bach territory. Born in Salzburg, just eight years after Beethoven, Neukomm outlived the famous Bonn-meister by 31 years, dying in Paris at the age of 80.
Neukomm’s instrument was the organ, but he took theory lessons from Michael Haydn. That notwithstanding, his formal education was in mathematics and philosophy at Salzburg University, which named him honorary organist of the University church. Subsequently, he was appointed chorusmaster at the Salzburg court theater in 1796, and from 1804 to 1809, he served as Kapellmeister at St. Petersburg’s German theater. Then, being of an adventurous spirit, Neukomm traveled to Brazil, where he introduced audiences to many works by Mozart and Haydn.
The bulk of Neukomm’s output dates to after his return from Brazil and consists largely of sacred music—some 50 Masses, two of which are large-scale Requiems—and at least eight oratorios. But he also wrote vast amounts of secular music, including operas, incidental music, and somewhere around 200 songs.
Reviewing a CD of Neukomm’s works titled
in issue 32:6, James Reel opined that “treasures” overstates the case. I’d have to agree. It’s a mystery why some composers are forgotten. In Neukomm’s case, the mystery is that he’s remembered, even to the minor extent that he is.
All of the pieces on this disc are essentially works for wind ensembles, which may explain why Neukomm emerges from E♭-Major just long enough for the two C-Major pieces, one of which, the Quintet, NV 105, is the only one to include a violin and a harp in the mix. The other, the Nocturne, NV 154, is the only one to include a piano. The four E♭-Major works range in scoring from the largest number of instruments—the
for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, viola, cello, and double bass—to the fewest—the two septets, both scored identically for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, and double bass. The above-mentioned nocturne is scored for only three instruments, oboe, horn, and piano, while the quintet is scored for flute, horn, violin, viola, and harp.
The seven works on this disc range in dates from 1812 (the quintet) to 1838 (the septet, NV 517), and all I can say of them is that they’re the bridesmaids of banality. Perhaps this is the sort of vacuous, divertissement-like music the Parisians of the period craved—I’m reminded a bit of Pleyel—but when one considers Beethoven’s works from even well before 1812, not to mention the works of Mozart and Haydn, whose music Neukomm championed in Brazil, it’s really hard to take these Neukomm pieces seriously, let alone even listen to them without a smirk of derision.
At least as depressing as Neukomm’s meager melodic and harmonic imagination is his limited sense of form. All of these pieces are essentially one-movement affairs that begin with a lengthy slow preamble, followed by an
that relies almost entirely on variations as opposed to the kind of motivic development and working out of thematic material within
and A-B-A forms. Neukomm relies primarily on a developmental technique the album note refers to as strophic. Perhaps that’s how he wrote his 200 songs.
There’s not much in music that has the capacity to leave me feeling this dispirited and demoralized, but Neukomm possesses the rare talent to make the art of music, indeed life itself, seem utterly meaningless. It’s too bad, really, for this very fine ensemble of musicians drawn from the Orchestra of the German Opera of Berlin plays these works with remarkable polish and finesse. It’s for this reason that I hate to dissuade you from purchasing this disc, but if I encourage you to acquire it, I worry that you might want to kill yourself after listening to Neukomm’s brain-dead music. It’s like the warning that comes with some of those prescription antidepressants: A side effect is thoughts of suicide.