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Johan Helmich ROMAN (1694 - 1758): "12 Sonatas for Flute and B.c."

Musica ad Rhenum

rec: Nov 25 - 26, 2014 & Jan 14 - 15, 2015, Velp (NL)
Brilliant Classics - 95214 (2 CDs) (© 2015) (2.26'10")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Sonata No 1 in G (BeRI 201); Sonata No 2 in D (BeRI 202); Sonata No 3 in c minor (BeRI 203); Sonata No 4 in G (BeRI 204); Sonata No 5 in e minor (BeRI 205); Sonata No 6 in b minor (BeRI 206); Sonata No 7 in G (BeRI 207); Sonata No 8 in A (BeRI 208); Sonata No 9 in C (BeRI 209); Sonata No 10 in e minor (BeRI 210); Sonata No 11 in g minor (BeRI 211); Sonata No 12 in D (BeRI 212)

Jed Wentz, transverse flute; Job ter Haar, cello; Michael Borgstede, harpsichord

Johan Helmich Roman was the first professional Swedish-born composer in history. I don't know whether his oeuvre includes any influences of folk music, but those parts of his output I have heard, show that he was strongly influenced by the Italian style. That also goes for his sonatas for transverse flute and basso continuo, which are recorded by Musica ad Rhenum.

Roman did not play the flute himself; he was rather educated as a violinist and in that capacity he was a child prodigy, playing in the court orchestra at the age of seven. The Swedish King Charles II sent him to London to perfect his skills. Here he came to know some of the main composers of the time, such as Handel, Geminiani and Bononcini. After his return to Stockholm he was appointed deputy Master of the Swedish Royal Chapel with the task of building up musical life. In the 1720s he introduced French opera and he also started to compose. The twelve flute sonatas were published in 1727 in Stockholm. They were dedicated to Queen Ulrike Eleonora.

The fact that Roman, despite being a violinist, chose to write sonatas for the transverse flute can be explained by the fast growing popularity of the flute, in particular among amateurs, for whom these sonatas were intended. The publication was also announced in other European countries. It tells us something about Roman's reputation that none other than Georg Philipp Telemann acted as his agent in Germany. Apparently the sonatas were well received, as copies have been found across Europe.

They don't strictly follow the then common pattern of sonatas. Whereas many composers used Corelli's sonatas, with their sequence of four movements in the order slow-fast-slow-fast, as their model, Roman often deviates from that pattern. The number of movements varies from four to seven; some of them are divided into several sections of a contrasting character. The sonatas also include quite a number of unexpected pauses, and they regularly remind me of the chamber music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. It is fair to say that they are quite modern for their time.

In London Roman played in the orchestra of the Royal Academy of Music under George Frideric Handel. This means that he experienced, first-hand, Italian opera and that has clearly left its mark in his sonatas. Several of them have a quite theatrical character. Often movements are strongly contrasting in character and mood. That comes very well to the fore in these performances by Musica ad Rhenum.

Instead of offering some information about Roman and his sonatas the ensemble's director and flautist, Jed Wentz, explains at length his view on the interpretation of music of the 18th century. "[In] the 18th century, the goal of music, like that of rhetoric, was to move the passions, including violent and unpleasant ones such as hatred, rage and even anxiety itself". The latter refers to what Wentz considers the more 'traditional' approach to interpretation: that musicians should produce "only feelings of security and comfort in the listener". He goes on by saying that "Baroque writers, in calling on musicians to move the passions of the audience, were asking them quite literally to force tears from the listener's eyes". And he refers to Johann Joachim Quantz, who "bids performers to use all the tricks and techniques of rhetorical delivery to sweep the audience away".

What does this mean, then, in practice? Firstly, Wentz emphasizes the contrasts in tempi. For many years he has thoroughly studied the sources with regard to the right tempi of allegro, adagio, andante and so on. He often takes very swift tempi, but also plays slow tempi really slow. However, he doesn't keep the tempo from start to finish. The indications of the composer are taken as starting points, but within movements he often slows down or speeds up, he adds cadenzas and here and there even includes an improvisation for the flute without the basso continuo, for instance in the opening movement of the Sonata V in e minor. These contrasts further emphasize the theatrical traits of Roman's sonatas.

Wentz also creates emphatic dynamic contrasts between notes and between phrases. That is an important part of musical rhetorics but also makes sure that the rhythmic pulse is not lost. That is always the danger when tempi are treated with a large amount of freedom. Recently I heard a disc with harpsichord sonatas by the Spanish composer Antonio Soler, in which the interpreter took so much freedom that the rhythms were becoming almost unrecognizable. That is certainly not the case here. That is all the more important as these sonatas, although dominated by the Italian style, also include French elements and some movements have dance rhythms. These are not lost in these performances.

Jed Wentz knows all too well that his views are not universally shared. He even goes as far as writing that "those who prefer 21st-century 'comfort and security' to an 18th-century rollercoaster can easily find performances of Baroque repertoire better suited to their dispassionate tastes". However, even if one accepts the basic view on interpretation as expressed by Wentz, it is perfectly possible to question some decisions. Among them are the long flute improvisation I mentioned above as well as some others, but also the harpsichord improvisation at the start of the fourth movement from the Sonata VIII in A. And throughout these two discs I heard several passages where I wondered why they were played the way they are.

That said, these interpretations are a real alternative to the rival performances by Verena Fischer, Klaus-Dieter Brandt and Léon Berben (Naxos, 2008). If you have that recording I urge you to investigate this recent production as well. And if you don't have these sonatas yet, these performances will convince you that Roman has created a very fine set of sonatas which are not inferior in any way to the best that has been written for the transverse flute in the first half of the 18th century.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Jed Wentz

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