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Johan Helmich ROMAN: Keyboard Sonatas

[I] "The 12 Keyboard Sonatas Nos. 1-7"
Anna Paradiso, harpsichorda, clavichordb
rec: Nov 2013, Lšnna Kyrka
BIS - 2095 (© 2014) (71'44")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/Sw
Cover, track-list & booklet

Sonata I in E flat (BeRI 225)a; Sonata II in D (BeRI 226)a; Sonata III in G (BeRI 227)a; Sonata IV in D (BeRI 228)a; Sonata V in g minor (BeRI 229)a; Sonata VI in B flat (BeRI 230)b; Sonata VII in F (BeRI 231)b

[II] "The 12 Keyboard Sonatas Nos 8-12"
Anna Paradiso, harpsichorda, clavichordb
rec: Nov 2013 & Oct 2014, Lšnna Kyrka
BIS - 2135 (© 2014) (78'23")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/Sw
Cover, track-list & booklet

Johan AGRELL (1701-1765) Sonata II in G, op. 2,2a; Johan Helmich ROMAN: Sonata VIII in A (BeRI 232)a; Sonata IX in d minor (BeRI 233)a; Sonata X in b minor (BeRI 234)b; Sonata XI in f minor (BeRI 235)b; Sonata XII in e minor (BeRI 236)a; Sonata in C (BeRI 215)a

Scores Roman

Until the early 18th century music life in the Baltic area was under strong German influence. This was the effect of the Scandinavian countries' embracing the Lutheran Reformation and the dominant position of German towns in the Hanseatic League. It was only in the early decades of the 18th century that a Swedish-born composer made his entry onto the music scene. His name was Johan Helmich Roman. Thanks to him Sweden was introduced to other influences, especially that of the Italian style.

Roman was a child prodigy at the violin, playing at the age of seven in the court orchestra in which his father was a violinist. From 1715 to 1721 he stayed in London, where he was sent by King Charles XII to perfect his skills. In London he played in the orchestra of the Royal Academy of Music under George Frideric Handel as one of the second violinists. He also became acquainted with famous masters of that time, like Giovanni Bononcini, Francesco Geminiani and Francesco Maria Veracini.

When he returned to Stockholm he was appointed deputy Master of the Swedish Royal Chapel with the task of building up musical life. The situation in the Swedish capital was very different from London: there were neither public concerts nor opera performances. During the 1720's considerable changes took place. Some of Lully's operas were performed by a French theatre company, and Roman composed some works of his own, for instance a cantata in honour of King Frederick I. He also improved the standard of the Royal Chapel and in 1731 he introduced the first public concerts in Stockholm.

During the 1730s he again travelled across Europe, visiting England, France, Italy, Austria and Germany. Whereas on this first journey it was particularly George Frideric Handel who attracted his interest, the second journey resulted in a strong influence of the Neapolitan style on his oeuvre, especially his keyboard works, as Anna Paradiso points out in her liner-notes to the two discs reviewed here. Sonata III was written there, as it is labelled "ŗ Napoli"; it dates from the autumn of 1736. These sonatas are recorded complete here for the first time. This part of Roman's oeuvre has received hardly any attention. It is telling that New Grove, in the article on the composer, completely ignores his keyboard works.

The sonatas are different in texture. The number of movements varies from three (VI,VII, XII) to seven (IV). In comparison to other keyboard music of the time relatively few movements or sections have repeat marks. Most movements come with a tempo indication. If movements have no tempo indications the tempo chosen by Ms Paradiso is in brackets, but only in the track-list of the first disc. In the booklet of the second disc we only see [...], which is a bit odd. There is no pattern in the order of the movements. Some open with a fast movement (allegro), others with a slow movement, such as adagio, largo or lento. Some sonatas include one or several very short movements which take hardly more than 30 seconds. They are but transitions from one movement to the other and bear the character of a recitative which explains their notable improvisational character. The second and third movements from the Sonata I are telling examples: the first takes 29, the second 33 seconds.

"The restlessness of the harmonic idiom, the continuous shifts from one melodic gesture to another, the absence of long and balanced phrases, the theatrical character in much of Roman's music: all of this is reminiscent of the Neapolitan school, so modern for its time", Anna Paradiso states in the booklet. The opening movement from Sonata I is a good example of the "asymmetric phrases" which are a feature of Roman's keyboard sonatas. The same is true for the fourth movement from Sonata IV. The second and third movements from Sonata IX are characterised by unsettling harmony; the latter includes some pretty strong dissonants. Ms Paradiso considers Roman's sonatas as being ahead of their time: "At times the dramatic pathos of these pages seems to anticipate the 'Sturm und Drang' movement!"

These sonatas are certainly not like what was being written for the keyboard at the time. Roman is a unique voice in the choir. He largely avoids what were to become fashionable devices in the mid-18th century: a reduction of the left hand to an accompanying role and the use of Alberti basses or drum basses. Counterpoint also plays a more important role here than in many keyboard works of that time.

The keyboard pieces have no titles in the manuscripts. They are sometimes called suites, but Ms Paradiso mentions that "on several occasions the composer used the term 'Sonata' for pieces of a similar character" and therefore this is the term used here as well. She plays them on two harpsichords, copies after instruments from France and Italy respectively, as well as on the clavichord. An inventory made after the death of his first wife in 1734 indicates that Roman owned two clavichords. That justifies the use of such an instrument; here it is a copy after an original Swedish clavichord by Philip Jakob Specken of 1743.

As a filler on the second disc we hear the Sonata II in G, op. 2,2 by Johan Joachim Agrell. He went to Kassel in 1723 at the invitation of Prince Maximilian of Hesse. In 1746 he became Kapellmeister in Nuremberg. His keyboard works were published in several countries; the sonatas op. 2 were printed in Nuremberg in 1748. These pieces tend towards the galant idiom which was about to become dominant in the mid-18th century.

Anna Paradiso delivers splendid and imaginative performances. She is not afraid to add a personal touch to these pieces. She is quite generous in the addition of ornamentation and now and then she also adds chords and some improvisational elements. As I was able to follow the scores I noted that she uses these liberties in a sensitive way; it never goes at the cost of what Roman wrote down. What Ms Paradiso does here seems to me in line with what was common practice at the time and what was expected from interpreters. These elements certainly contribute to the attraction of these works and their impact on the listener. These are discs to which one can and should return regularly, both because of the quality and peculiarity of Roman's sonatas and because of the way Anna Paradiso plays them.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

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