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Johann Sigismund KUSSER (1660 - 1727)
Six French Overtures
Ouverture I in a minor [13:42]
Ouverture II in B flat [12:32]
Ouverture III in C [11:30]
Ouverture IV in D [12:08]
Ouverture V in F [12:38]
Ouverture VI in g minor [12:53]
Musica Aeterna Bratislava
Les Menus Plaisir/Peter Zajicek
rec. 1993, Moyzes Hall, Bratislava, Slovakia

The four overtures or orchestral suites by Johann Sebastian Bach are among his most beloved instrumental compositions. They are often played and regularly recorded on CD. The genre of the orchestral suite was very popular in Bach’s time. Such suites were inspired by the instrumental parts from the operas of Jean-Baptiste Lully, who had been hired in France by Louis XIV to develop a pure French style in the opera. The ballet was an important part of his operas, and ballet music was also performed separately, out of its dramatic context. Throughout Europe, monarchs and aristocrats were fascinated by this form, an expression of the splendour that characterized the Sun King’s regime. They wanted something like that and so they tried to imitate the French style. They sent their chapel masters to familiarize themselves with the French style. One of them was Johann Sigismund Kusser.

We do not know much about his musical education. Even his years in Paris are not documented, but those who listen to his orchestral suites cannot believe that he was not on the scene to hear with his own ears what Lully had created. Reinhard Goebel, founder and leader of the former ensemble Musica antiqua Köln, once said that a Frenchman probably would hardly have recognized the orchestral suites of Bach and Telemann as French. This is due to the fact that they were the product of the ‘mixed taste’ – the mixing of elements from the Italian, French and German styles – which was the ideal of their time. For example, in one of Telemann’s best-known orchestral suites, there is an air ā l'italienne. In other suites there are also solo passages for other instruments. That is inconceivable in the suites of Lully and you will not find them in the overtures of Kusser, which are the subject of this recording. There is no sign of the Italian style here. This is pure French music.

Kusser even goes so far as to divide the score into five different voices in the French style: dessus, haute-contre, taille, quite and basse. That is an important difference compared to the orchestral suites by Bach and Telemann, who wrote for an orchestra that was based on Italian models. Another relevant difference is the role of the various instruments. Bach and Telemann indicate exactly what the various instruments have to play. In Kusser's suites the instruments are not specified. Wind players certainly played a role in Lully’s operas, but it is up to the performer to decide when they come into play. In his score, Kusser also confines himself to indicating the range of each part, but instruments are not mentioned. They participate in different ways. The strings are the basis of the orchestra, but sometimes their role is taken over by recorders or oboes. On other occasions the latter join the strings and play colla parte. That was a common practice in France and it seems right that the performers apply it here as well.

Kusser was clearly inspired by Lully. It seems they were also very much alike in character. By all accounts, Kusser was a difficult individual who was frequently in conflict with his colleagues and even his employers. It explains why he had to move regularly. The composer and theorist Johann Mattheson had some revealing things to say about Kusser. “[At] rehearsal or in performance, nearly everyone, in the orchestra or on stage, trembled before him. He had such a crushing way of condemning errors that tears often flowed”. He also mentions that musicians were summoned to his house, where he sang or played every note in front of them to show how he thought it should sound. That is not exactly the way to make friends.

But his patron, the Duke of Wurttemberg, a great admirer of the French style, was undoubtedly very pleased with this Composition de Musique suivant la Methode Francoise, which his Kapellmeister dedicated to him, with a preface in French. Kusser is rightly counted among the German composers who were known as lullistes, because they were completely imbued with the style of Lully. The orchestral suites by Telemann and Bach are only vaguely reminscent of that style.

This recording dates from 1993, but was released, then, on a label that apparently did not find a wide dissemination. In any case, I was not aware of its existence, and I was quite surprised to see that this is a reissue. It is good that it should be available again. The sound is excellent and the musicians really let their hair down. This is a disc that will cheer you up, thanks to Kusser’s music in the first place, but also thanks to the lively and colourful performance by Peter Zajicek and his colleagues. This is a CD to return to regularly.

Johan van Veen



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