Neukomm – String Quintets

Sigismund Neukomm (1778-1858)
Une Fête de Village en Suisse (ca. 1816-21)
L’amante abandonnée

Ensemble Les Adieux
Mary Utiger, violin
Ursula Bundies, violin
Bettina Ihrig, viola
Hajo Bass, viola
Nicholas Selo, cello

 (2002) – TT 54:56

Programmatic String Quintets Encompassing Pastoral Impressions and Doomed Love


In a nutshell:
• Neukomm treads similar stylistic ground as his teachers Michael and Joseph Haydn with a tincture of Beethoven. At the same time, he strikes me as a pre-Romantic owing to his colorful and expressive forays in program music.
• These programmatic string quintets, composed in the 1810s, are scored for two violins, two violas, and cello.
• Une Fête de Village en Suisse (ca. 1816-1821) will bring to mind Beethoven’s 6th. Each movement depicts a pastoral scene, replete with rustic dances, hymns, and a storm disrupting the idyll. This is very attractive and evocative stuff.
• L’amante abandonnée (The Abandoned Lover) represents the stages of love in three movements: “Amour,” “Infidélité,” and “Désepoir” (Despair). There’s passion, harmonic instability, and furious activity in the outer movements.
• Ensemble Les Adieux gives elegant performances in a refined blend with clarity of voices and counterpoint.
• Natural sound and good recording quality. Short playing time: 54:56.

Sigismund Neukomm (1778-1858) lived long enough to study with Joseph Haydn and compose a memoriam piece for Chopin. His output is humongous at over 1200 works in all genres. He has his roots in the classical era and writes in a post-Haydn idiom, while showing some assimilation of Beethoven. It’s astounding that so fluent a composer is barely represented in the discography, but this recording is the only music I’ve heard from the man. A scathing assessment by Fanfare’s Jerry Dubins suggests that Neukomm may be uneven: “[he] possesses the rare talent to make the art of music, indeed life itself, seem utterly meaningless … you might want to kill yourself after listening to Neukomm’s brain-dead music.” Gosh, I was feeling pretty good while listening to these string quintets, all dating from the 1810s and scored for two violins, two violas, and cello. They are remarkably adventurous because of their programmatic angle. For that matter, they anticipate a similar string quintet with descriptive titles: George Onslow’s “The Bullet.”

“Une Fête de Village en Suisse” (a festival in a Swiss village) was composed between 1816 and 1821. Neukomm even supplied his own program notes. There’s no question Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony is the stylistic and formal model. Neukomm’s material is loosely structured, rhapsodic, fragmented, and undergoes many tempo changes. The opening movement sets the stage with pastoral tranquility and festive merriment. Next is a noble “Larghetto,” essentially a hymn of thanksgiving, brimming with exquisite part-writing and gorgeous harmonies. Although the “Andante con moto” is initially carefree, tense tremolos herald impending disaster. Neukomm teases the listener a bit before unleashing a storm with whirling scales, wild dynamic fluctuations, and harsh tremolos. At the very end, Neukomm beautifully illustrates, via slow arpeggios, rays of sunshine penetrating the clouds. In the lengthy finale (13-minutes) the Swiss festival is in full swing with baying violin figures and a rustic waltz. This charming waltz is a recurring theme that pauses for interesting episodes of major-minor contrasts. There’s also a quiet hymn and pulsing unisons in pizzicato to emulate church bells.

L’amante abandonnée (The Abandoned Lover) might have been inspired by Beethoven’s “Les Adieux.” It represents the stages of love in three movements. The first, “Amour,” conveys a tempestuous journey of moods, from sweetness and yearning to agitated passions and grief. Neukomm’s material is dramatic and interesting, featuring exciting sequences and well-wrought, attractive counterpoint. In the second movement, “Infidélité,” Neukomm is less convincing in his programmatic approach. He uses a wistful French folksong as a springboard for variations. All of them are slow, gracefully contrapuntal, and even beautiful, but hardly evoke feelings of infidelity. The finale, “Désepoir” (Despair), depicts the lover’s psychological state and desperation. It opens with a pleading violin melody and then explodes with gusto, calming only to reminisce about blissful times before plunging back into unstable harmony and turbulent repeated notes. This culminates in what might be suicide in the final cadence; what else could those violent stabs be?

Ensemble Les Adieux is the epitome of elegance and clarity of line; every harmony and voice in the texture is transparent. Natural sound and good recording quality.


Neukomm – Works & Recordings

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