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Sigismund NEUKOMM (1778-1858)
Requiem à la memoire de Louis XVI
Clémence Tilquin (soprano), Yasmina Favre (mezzo-soprano), Robert Getchell (tenor), Alain Buet (baritone), Namur Chamber Choir, La Grande Ecurie et la Chambre du Roy. Jean-Claude Malgoire (conductor)
rec. 23 January 2016, Chapel Royal, Versailles
ALPHA CLASSICS 966 [61:43]

Some years ago Herald released a CD recreating the 1806 state funeral of Lord Nelson in St Pauls Cathedral (HAVPCD232); a CD which, with its deeply moving music and powerfully solemn atmosphere, remains one of my personal favourites. This new release from Alpha does something similar for the French side, and also brings to light a composer whose place in European musical history has been largely overlooked despite a vast catalogue of works numbering well in excess of 2000 including no less than 50 mass settings. That I find it lacking in both the musical authority and historic authenticity of the Herald disc cannot simply be laid at the door of my own patriotic prejudices.

Some historical context first of all. Nelson had famously been killed during the Battle of Trafalgar in which the Royal Navy decisively ended Napoleon’s ambitions to invade England. Nine years later Napoleon was declared an outlaw by the Congress of Vienna, defeated at Waterloo, captured by the British and exiled on the remote island of Saint Helena. His downfall led to the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in France and the reign of Louis XVIII whose brother, Louis XVI, had been beheaded in 1793 at the height of the French Revolution and when Napoleon was rising through the ranks of the French military. Louis XVI was posthumously honoured at the Congress of Vienna by the commissioning of a Requiem Mass which was performed in St Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna, on 21st January 1815, the 22nd anniversary of his execution. This CD recreates that memorial service which was given “before the Emperors, Kings, Princes, and great personages of all the nations present at the Congress” and sung by a choir of 300 divided into two and conducted by both the composer and Antonio Salieri.

Sigismund Neukomm was born in Salzburg. Related to the Haydn family, both Michael and Joseph Haydn were among his principal teachers, while Neukomm himself became teacher to Mozart’s son, Franz Xaver. In 1804 he became kapellmeister at the German Theatre in St Petersburg, later joining the Portuguese court just as Napoleon was advancing on the country, so he fled with them to Brazil. He returned to Europe and settled in Paris where, in 1814, he was appointed musician at the court of Prince Talleyrand who was Napoleon’s chief diplomat and subsequently King Louis XVIII’s Foreign Minister. Talleyrand also served as French ambassador to the United Kingdom, retaining Neukomm as his court composer. Neukomm proudly boasted that; “I am, according to the English, the foreigner who has composed the greatest quantity of music to English words”. Given Prince Talleyrand’s central role in the great political events of the time, it was only to be expected that he involved Neukomm as often as possible, and when the Congress of Vienna elected to commemorate King Louis XVI’s execution, it was Talleyrand who persuaded them to commission a special Requiem Mass from Neukomm.

The Requiem à la memoire de Louis XVI was not, in fact, originally written for that event. Neukomm arranged it from a Requiem Mass he had composed in 1813 in memory of both Michael and Joseph Haydn, adding an Offertorium which he wrote specifically for his sister to sing on the occasion. This disc also begins with a stately, majestic Funeral March for brass, sounding grandly opulent in the setting of the Chapel Royal at Versailles where this recording was made. Four heavy tolling bells lead into a Miserere mei with organ accompaniment and the vocal forces solemnly intoning the words of this ancient prayer.

As for the Requiem itself, the very detailed booklet essays do not go into much detail about the original performance, nor reveal how this recorded version has been assembled from manuscripts in the Bibliothèque Nationale by Vincent Boyer. Here it is performed not by two choirs but by a single choir of 24 voices and a quartet of soloists (who usually appear as an ensemble rather than as individual voices) accompanied by a 39-piece orchestra of strings, woodwind, brass and percussion. Smaller, certainly, than the 300 singers (possibly just with organ accompaniment) of the original, but nevertheless making a fine, full-bodied sound in this generous recording. The music is unrelievedly solemn and stately, with occasional moments of almost naively simplistic writing, and rarely breaking into any kind of a sweat. Even the Dies Irae outbursts seem more sturdy and posturing than truly dramatic.

This is a genuinely fascinating and historically significant work, which in musical terms seems to inhabit the worlds of Haydn, Berlioz and Brahms without any real sense of stylistic incongruity. The recording captures the essence of a grand state occasion as much as a musical performance, and Jean-Claude Malgoire holds everything in check so that there is a sense of flow and continuity through the proceedings which brushes aside several niggling doubts about the authenticity of what we are hearing.
Marc Rochester



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