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Johan Helmich ROMAN (1694 - 1758): "Twelve Flute Sonatas"

Verena Fischer, transverse flute; Klaus-Dieter Brandt, cello; Léon Berben, harpsichord

rec: Oct 10 - 12, 2007 & Jan 14 - 17, 2008, Neumarkt, Reitstadel
Naxos - 8.570492-93 (2 CDs) (© 2008) (2.25'53")

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)

Johan Helmich Roman is the first Swedish-born professional composer in history. He played a key role in the development of music life in Sweden. He was a child prodigee 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.

In 1726 a publication of 12 flute sonatas by Roman was announced. In order to increase sales advertisements also appeared in newspapers in other European countries. In Germany it was Georg Philipp Telemann who acted as agent. Next year the 12 sonatas were indeed published, with a dedication to Queen Ulrike Eleonora.

It is remarkable that Roman wrote his sonatas for the transverse flute, an instrument he himself did not play. Although there are some violinistic traits in some sonatas they are quite idiomatic for the transverse flute. It is clear from the title page that Roman had written the sonatas for amateurs. And among them the transverse flute was quickly growing in popularity, both in Sweden and abroad. And the German flautist and theorist Johann Joachim Quantz had stated that in the 1720's there was very little music available which was specifically written for the transverse flute. So there definitely was a market for flute sonatas.

It is not known how well the collection sold, but copies have been found in several libraries in Sweden and abroad. Apparently they were played as late as in the early 19th century. Like so much music of that time Roman's sonatas were reflecting the goûts réunis: there are Italian and French elements, and a number of movements are in fact dances, although Roman only uses the Italian character descriptions like allegro, adagio or larghetto. The influence of Handel is particularly noticeable.

The structure of these sonatas reflect their individual character. Most are in four or five movements, but there are also some sonatas in six or seven movements. Some movements are divided into subsections with different character indications like the second movement of the Sonata No 2 in D: larghetto, andante, adagio. Unusual are indications like 'piva' and 'villanella' in the Sonata No 10 in e minor. The first is what the French would call a 'musette', the latter reflects the influence of folk music which can be found at several places in these sonatas.

When I listened to these sonatas it striked me that many movements are quite dramatic, for example through the frequent use of short general pauses. In this performance the interpreters have included short cadenzas at various moments. I don't know if Roman has given any indication as to whether these should be added, but they seem to me in line with the overall character of the sonatas. I think the artists have captured their spirit very well. Their performances are bold and daring. In some movements the realisation of the basso continuo has an almost concertante character which definitely suites them.

The contrasts in tempo between the movements come out well. Fast movements are generally played very fast and slow movements really slow. Only occasionally I find the tempi not satisfying, like the andante of the Sonata No 1 in G which seems more like an adagio. Moreover, I could imagine a more differentiated treatment of dynamics. There are moments when I was longing for more and larger dynamic inflections.

But these remarks take nothing away from my appreciation of this recording. This is first-rate music and with Verena Fischer, Klaus-Dieter Brandt and Léon Berben it has found its ideal interpreters.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

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