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"The Hibernian Muse - Music for Ireland by Purcell and Cousser"

Maria Keohane (Calliope, Melpomene, Polymniaa), sopranoac; Anthony Gregory, high tenorc, tenor (Apollo)a
Sestina; Irish Baroque Orchestraac
Dir: Peter Whelan

rec: Oct 4 - 6, 2021, Drogheda, St Peter's Church
Linn Records - CKD 685 (© 2022) (70'07")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics
Cover, track-list & booklet

Johann Sigismund COUSSER (KUSSER) (1660-1727): The Universal Applause of Mount Parnassusa; Henry PURCELL (1659-1695): A New Irish tune 'Lilliburlero' (Z 646) (arr Pablo FitzGerald)b; Great parent, hail! (Z 327)c; trad: Sín síos agus suas liomd

[Sestina] Aisling Kenny (Clio, Euterpe, Urania), sopranoa; Sinéad O'Kelly (Terpsichore, Thaliaa), mezzo-sopranoad; Sarah Thursfield (Erato), contraltoa; Christopher Bowen, tenorac; Eoghan Desmonda, Aaron O'Hareac, bass
[IBO] Andreas Helm, recorder, voice flute, oboe; Hugo Arteaga, bassoon; Sarah Sexton, Marja Gaynor, Kinga Ujszászi, violin; Jordan Bowron, viola; Gulrim Choď, Joseph Crouch, Aoife Nic Athlaoich, cello; Malachy Robinson, double bass; Pablo FitzGerald, lute (solob); Malcolm Proud, harpsichord

The title of this disc may not ring a bell with some readers. It refers to Hibernia, the Classical Latin name for Ireland. It is called that way, for instance, by Tacitus, in his book Agricola. Ireland shares the fate of other countries at the outskirts of Europe: their musical heritage is seldom given attention by performers and ensembles, except maybe by those from the country itself. In recent years some discs have been released with traditional Irish music, but there are very few sources with art music from the time before 1700. In 1603 James VI King of Scots became James I of England and Ireland, uniting the Kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland in a personal union. No wonder, then, that music life was under strong English influence. English composers and composers from the continent who had settled in England, sometimes performed their music in Ireland; an example is George Frideric Handel, whose Messiah was first performed in Dublin in 1742. The disc under review brings us back about half a century, when music by Henry Purcell was performed in Dublin, at the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of Trinity College, which had been founded by Queen Elizabeth. The second work dates from 1711, when in February a serenata da camera was performed at Dublin Castle to mark the birthday of Queen Anne.

For most of his life, Purcell was closely connected to the royal court. In 1677 he succeeded Matthew Locke as composer for the violins, and in 1682 he was admitted as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. Between 1680 and his death he composed many pieces related to the monarchy: before the Glorious Revolution of 1685 he wrote Welcome Songs and three birthday Odes for James II, and after 1685 six Odes for the birthday of Queen Mary. The Ode Great parent, hail to thee! is comparable in character with these works, and Robert King included it in his complete recording of this part of Purcell's oeuvre. The author of the text was Nahum Tate, who also wrote the libretto of Dido and Aeneas. Obviously, an occasional work is a completely different cattle of fish, and King, in his liner-notes, is not very complimentary about the quality of Tate's lyrics. "The librettist of Dido and Aeneas this time produced one of his most contrived sets of words: at times the composer must have been hard-pressed to make any sense of them at all!" The text does not refer to the College, whose anniversary was celebrated, but rather to its founder Elizabeth and to the current monarchs, William of Orange and Mary, as well as the royalist soldier James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormond (1610–88), who had served as both Chancellor of Trinity College and as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. The scoring is for two recorders, strings and basso continuo, and four voices, solo and tutti. The work opens with an overture, which is followed by a chorus, in which Purcell uses chromaticism for the second line: "Who hast thro' last distress survived". The work includes three duets, two for alto and tenor and one for alto and bass. The first is dominated by repeats in the form of echos, depicting the first line of the text: "After war's alarms repeated". The recorders appear in the symphony preceding the soprano aria 'The royal patron sung' and also participate in the aria itself.

Johann Sigismund Cousser may be an unknown name to most music lovers; they may recognize him with the name he was born with: Johann Sigismund Kusser. This indicates that he was German. In fact, he was born in Pressburg, today Bratislava in Slovakia. He took some posts in Germany, and Johann Gottfried Walther, in his Musicalisches Lexicon (1732), mentions that he studied with Jean-Baptiste Lully in Paris. He was appointed at the court in Ansbach to train the violinists in the French style of playing. Kusser is considered one of several composers who had adopted the French style - then popular among aristocrats - and were known as Lullists. Kusser never stayed long in one place, and according to Walther that was due to his fiery temperament, which brought him oft in conflict with colleagues. That happened, for instance, in Hamburg, where he withdrew his opera Porus after just one performance, due to a conflict with Jakob Kremberg, the manager of the Oper am Gänsemarkt. After several positions in Germany, he arrived in 1704 in London. In 1707 he moved to Dublin, and there he was appointed Chappel-Master of Trinity College. In 1716 he became Master of the Musick attending his Majesty's State in Ireland, which made him responsible for the writing of court odes to celebrate the birthdays of the English monarchs. Most of his compositions in this genre are lost, but the few that have survived, have the form of a serenata, a genre that had its origin in Italy and was popular across Europe. The librettos indicate that they were staged, with costumes, scenery and maybe also some dramatic action.

According to my edition of New Grove only two pieces in this genre have survived. Samantha Owens, in the liner-notes to the present recording, states that three have come down to us. Apparently, the third has been discovered in recent times. That seems to be the Serenata a 4, written between 1707 and 1714 for a memorial celebration of King William III. It has been recorded by Balász Máté, together with Peace, Victory, Discord, Felicity, Plenty, a serenata theatrale for the celebration of the Peace of Utrecht in 1713 (Hungaroton, 2010). The third work is performed here: The Universal Applause of Mount Parnassus, performed on 6 February 1711 at Dublin Castle. It is scored for ten voices, representing Apollo (tenor) and the nine muses: Calliope, Polymnia, Melpomene, Clio, Euterpe, Urania, Thalia, Terpsichore and Erato (soprano). In this recording two sopranos represent three characters each, two roles are allocated to the mezzo-soprano and one to the alto. In Kusser's time there is often not much difference between parts that today are taken by sopranos and mezzo-sopranos; whether the alto role is transposed is not mentioned in the booklet. In the choruses the soloists are joined by a second tenor and a bass. It is mentioned in the booklet that Kusser was acquainted with the music of Purcell; he collected a considerable number of his works. The serenata is very different, though, and much more alike the serenatas of Italian composers. It consists of a sequence of recitatives and arias as well as some choruses. The arias are mostly rather short; the longest are those by Calliope, Polymnia and Melpomene, but they all take less than four minutes. One should not expect much text expression here, and Kusser is no Purcell. That said, there is much to enjoy, and it is nice that with this disc all three surviving vocal works by Kusser are available on disc.

The performances are generally pretty good. In Purcell the parts designed to an alto are performed here by Anthony Gregory, listed as a 'high tenor'. It has often been suggested that at least some of Purcell's alto parts are in fact intended for a high tenor. In this piece this voice type seems the right choice. Gregory sings his part very well. Maria Keohane is excellent in the soprano aria, and she is also the star in Kusser's serenata, taking the three main roles among the muses. Some of the singers use a little too much vibrato now and then, but overall it is not really disturbing.

This disc offers a most welcome insight into the music scene in Ireland around 1700. I am hoping for more.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Christopher Bowen
Aisling Kenny
Aaron O'Hare
Irish Baroque Orchestra

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