Johann Sigismund KUSSER (1660-1727)
Two Serenatas for the Dublin Court
Serenata a 4 (for the Memorial Celebration of King William III) [31:39]
Serenata Theatrale a 5 (For the Celebration of the Treaty of Utrecht) [35:39]
Susan Hamilton (Fame, Victory), Andrea Csereklyei (Albania, Felicity), József Csapó (Apollo) (soprano), Mariam Sarkissian (Peace), Éva Lax (Plenty) (mezzo-soprano), Gábor Kállay (Discord), Péter Mészáros (Mercury) (tenor), Dominik Wörner (Neptune) (bass)
Aura Musicale/Balász Máté
rec. 6-9 April 2010, Gyúró Calvinist Church, Hungary. DDD
HUNGAROTON HCD 32633 [67:33]

Johann Sigismund Kusser was one of many composers from the European continent who settled in the British isles in the first quarter of the 18th century. He wasn't so much driven by a search for employment. It was rather an attempt to escape from his country where he had made life pretty much impossible for himself. His biography is full of conflicts with colleagues and the authorities. As a result he never stayed in one place very long.

Kusser was of Hungarian parentage and was born in Pressburg - now Bratislava in Slovakia. He studied with Jean-Baptiste Lully in Paris for six years, and this had a lasting influence on his development as a composer. In Germany he belonged to a group of composers who were known as Lullistes because of their admiration of Lully and their composing in his style. In 1682 and 1700 three collections of overtures in the French style were printed. The first explicitly declared composition de musique suivant la méthode françoise. The largest part of his oeuvre consists of operas, which were performed in Brunswick, Stuttgart and Hamburg. Almost all of them are lost.

His time in Hamburg is typical of his career. He settled there in 1694, and almost immediately came into conflict with the manager of the opera, Jakob Kremberg. After probably just one performance he withdrew an opera from the repertoire and founded a rival opera company. In 1695 Kusser became Kapellmeister of the Hamburg opera, but when a year later another manager was appointed Kusser again founded his own opera company with which he started to travel. In his music encyclopedia Johann Gottfried Walther wrote that "because of his volatile and fiery temperament he was unable to remain long in one place."

After some years in Stuttgart he went to London in 1704 where he stayed until 1707. He then moved to Dublin where he remained the rest of his life. Here he became chapel master of Trinity College in 1711 and in 1716 "Master of the Musick attending his Majesty's State in Ireland". In this capacity he had the task of composing the odes for the birthdays of the British monarch which were performed every year at Dublin castle.

The two pieces on this disc were written for special occasions. The Serenata a 4 was written for a memorial celebration of King William III. It is a typical serenata which has no plot but is rather a long tribute to King William. It opens with an overture in French style. Although formally the piece is in one part, in fact it has two sections which both comprise four pairs of recitatives and arias for the four characters: Fame, Neptune, Albania (=Scotland) and Apollo, and close with a chorus which represents the British Nation. The chorus which ends the first part bears strong traces of a German chorale setting.

The Serenata Theatrale is more dramatic, as the title suggests. It was written for the celebration of the Peace of Utrecht in 1713. Two allegorical figures, Peace and Discord, are arguing until Victory enters the scene and sides with Peace. Discord is sent to hell. Felicity, Plenty and the people declare the joys of love. Mercury appears and praises the virtue of Queen Anne; he is joined by the chorus. The score of this piece is more colourful and contains several obbligato parts, one of them for a cello piccolo. Most arias have a dacapo and are accompanied by the orchestra, whereas in the Serenata a 4 most arias are for voice and basso continuo with the orchestra only playing the ritornello at the end.

This serenata is the least interesting of the two. The music is pleasant to the ear, but rather unremarkable and certainly not very original. The performance doesn't make it any better. It is alright without being really good. One factor is the dry acoustic which is surprising considering the recording took place in a church. It is known that Kusser's birthday odes were staged, with costumes and scenery. But I could not find whether they were performed in a theatre, which would justify the acoustic. Anyway, it doesn't help to make this music shine. The soloists are mostly good, with the exception of the male soprano József Csapó whose top notes sound stressed. And his attempts to hit them correctly has a negative effect on his intonation and diction. The playing of the orchestra is sometimes a bit awkward.

A theatrical acoustic is more appropriate in the Serenata Theatrale as this was performed at the playhouse in Dublin, also staged. The music is better, and so is the performance as a whole. That said, the pronunciation and diction of the singers leaves something to be desired. It is clear that in most cases English is not their native language. Susan Hamilton has acted as language coach, but that hasn't prevented the pronunciation from being rather inconsistent. The playing of the orchestra is really good, though, and definitely better than in the Serenata a 4.

This production is an interesting contribution to our knowledge of English music history and the role of foreigners in the first quarter of the 18th century. The Serenata Theatrale makes this disc worthwhile. On balance it is a bit of a mixed baggage, and the performances reflect this.

Johan van Veen

Music and performances are of variable quality.