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Johann Sigismund KUSSER (1660 - 1727): "Composition de Musique (1682)"

Les Enchantants
Dir: Klaus Westermann
rec: February 2004, Hamburg
Musicaphon - M 56854 (© 2004) (48'51")

Ouverture 1; Ouverture 2; Ouverture 3

Daniel Rothert, Philipp Spätling, recorder; Onno Verschoor, recorder, oboe; Lou Zeekaf, oboe; Fiona Stevens, violin; Carla Linné, violetta; Valentina Cieslar, David Dieterle, viola; Katie Rietman, cello; Jenny Westman, viola da gamba; Steffen Voss, bassoon; Simon Linné, Ian Grüter, lute; Klaus Westermann, harpsichord

During the 17th century Germany was penetrated by the Italian style, but there also was a growing influence of French music. One of the exponents of the French taste in Germany was Johann Sigismund Kusser, who was of Hungarian origin, and worked in Germany, England and Ireland. One of the reasons he never stayed very long at one place was that he was a difficult character to deal with. It often didn't take long until he was in trouble with superiors or colleagues. One of the most important parts of his activities was the opera, and it is a shame that none of his own operas has been preserved. Only a handful of arias from some of his operas are extant.

The main part of his oeuvre which has come down to us consists of three collections of orchestral suites, published between 1682 and 1700. It is here where his preference for the French style is most obvious, as the title of the first collection indicates: Composition de musique suivant la méthode françoise, contenant 6 ouvertures de théâtre accompagnées de plusieurs airs (1682). These were composed after a period of six years which Kusser spent in Paris, where he studied with Lully. The title could suggest these pieces were originally written for the theatre, but that seems not to be the case. The are rather written in the style of Lully's orchestral music which was included in his stage works. The airs in the title don't refer to vocal pieces, but to the movements following the 'ouverture', which are all called air. The first three overtures or suites from this collection are recorded here, and in all of them the 'ouverture' is followed by 'airs', which are in fact dances in disguise, as the composer indicates: 'premier air - rondeau' or 'cinquième air - courante'.
The first Overture contains 10 movements: an 'ouverture', followed by 9 airs. The second has an 'ouverture' and 7 airs and closes with a chaconne. The third suite has an ouverture and 8 airs, with a 'prélude' in the middle. The 'premier air - rondeau', the second movement of the Ouverture 1 is an impressive solemn piece which contains some striking dissonances. It is just an example of the excellent quality of these orchestral overtures.

This music is more French than overtures in French style by other German composers. Reinhard Goebel, director of the former Musica antiqua Köln, once said that the French hardly would have recognized the 'French' music by German composers as real French music. That is certainly not the case here, but that has also to do with the way Kusser's overtures are performed here. The ensemble's director, Klaus Westermann, makes some remarks about performance and instrumentation in the booklet.
The scoring of these Overtures is typically Lullyan: it is written in five (or six, in case the dessus is split) parts with contrasting passages for three voices. "In character, compared to the Italian style that employs two equal, high voices, is the juxtaposition of two strong outer voices and three weak middle voices". The upper parts are meant to be played on violin, sometimes supported by a wind instrument (recorder and/or oboe) playing colla parte. This way a differentiation in sound can be achieved as well as dynamic contrasts. From remarks by Georg Muffat one may conclude that no 16'-instrument was involved in the performance of the lowest part, which gives this music a certain lightness.

It is also the number of instruments involved which gives these performances a large amount of 'Frenchyness', in particular the numeric ratio of the parts to one another. In regard to the practice in Lully's time Westermann writes: "While there were nine to twelve instruments on the upper voice (dessus) and six to eight (or more) on the bass part, there were only two to three, later generally two, on the middle voices, with the quinte sometimes being played by just one instrument". This practice has been applied in the performance of these suites by Kusser, although far less instruments are involved as one can see from the list of players given above.

The question arises whether it is justified to perform these overtures as they would be performed in France. Kusser wasn't the only composer to write orchestral suites in French style. But as these suites by Kusser were published in Stuttgart they were clearly intended for the German market. And as popular the French style was at many courts in Germany, is it reasonable to assume that the orchestras at those courts will have played music like this the French way?
The fact that these suites do sound like genuine French music has a lot to do with the scoring on this disc, which is different from the way German orchestras probably have performed them. As far as I know only one suite by Kusser has been recorded before, by L'Arpa Festante München (Amati – SRR 9012/1), and there it sounds much more like German music written in French style. That is probably closer to the actual performance practice of this kind of music in Germany than this interpretation by Les Enchantants.

Anyway, the performance is very impressive. The ensemble, which I hadn't heard before, makes a great impression, and shows a thorough understanding of Kusser's style. I like the clear articulation and the great sense of rhythm the ensemble displays. Also nice is the variety in the scoring of the basso continuo part.
This recording is very enjoyable and I strongly recommend it. I only regret that the playing time is so short: there is plenty of space for another suite. I sincerely hope this ensemble is going to record the remaining suites from this collection as well as the two other collections in the future. Kusser's music deserves to be performed and recorded.

Johan van Veen (© 2007)

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