Roman To the Northern Star Resonus RES10316

Johan Helmich Roman (1694-1758)
To the Northern Star
Emily Atkinson (soprano)
Flauguissimo (Yu-Wei Hu, transverse flute; Johan Löfving, theorbo, guitar)
Magdalena Loth-Hill (violin), Henrik Persson (viola da gamba)
rec. 2021, Holy Trinity Church, Weston, UK
Texts and translations included
Reviewed as a stereo mp3 download (320 kbps) from Resonus Classics
Resonus Classics RES10316 [67]

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, such as 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 twelve 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 twelve 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 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. 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 are written in a mixture of Italian and French elements, and a number of movements are in fact dances, although Roman only uses Italian tempo indications, such as allegro, adagio or larghetto. The influence of Handel is particularly noticeable.

The structure of these sonatas attests to their individual character. Most are in four or five movements; the latter is the case with the Sonatas 8 and 10 included here. There are also some sonatas in six or seven movements; the Sonata No 4 has six. Some movements are divided into subsections with different tempo indications. An example is the fourth movement of the Sonata No 8: the basic tempo is allegro, but it is introduced by a short adagio section, which returns a few times. The Sonata No 10 is unusual in that it includes a piva – it is what the French would call a musette – and a villanella, which shows the influence of folk music, comparable with movements that we find in so many works by Telemann.

In addition to the selection of three sonatas from the set of flute sonatas, we get a trio sonata for two violins and basso continuo, which is performed here on flute and violin. It follows the traditional four-movement form, established by Arcangelo Corelli.

Especially interesting are the two vocal items. Süße Zeiten eilet nicht is an aria from a cantata written as Tafelmusik, a genre quite popular at the time, and intended as musical entertainment at court. The cantata – already mentioned in the second paragraph -    was written in honour of King Frederick I, who was from Hessel-Kassel – which explains the German text – and his wife, Queen Ulrike Eleonora, who was Roman’s main patron. The aria is in dacapo form, and scored for soprano, obbligato transverse flute and basso continuo.

Bröllops Music (Wedding music) was written for an aristocratic wedding on a text in Swedish. The most remarkable aspect of the aria from this piece is the instrumental introduction which takes almost half of the entire work and is dominated by a virtuosic cadenza for violin solo, which undoubtedly reflects Roman’s own skills. The liner-notes refer here to his Assaggi for violin without accompaniment. In the vocal section, the soprano is accompanied by the flute, which plays colla voce, whereas the violin plays an obbligato part.

The extracts from the two vocal works suggest that these are fine works. It is to be hoped that they are going to be recorded complete one day. The arias are sung by Emily Atkinson, who has a lovely voice, and delivers stylish performances, with some fine ornamentation. The instrumental parts also receive splendid performances. Yu-Wei Hu’s play is differentiated, dynamically as well as in colour and tempo. The tempi are well-chosen; the andantes are treated as what they are: modestly fast, but not slow. In the basso continuo there is no keyboard instrument, but rather a plucked instrument, either theorbo or guitar, played by Johan Löfving. That is a perfectly defendable option, and Löfving’s realisation of the bass part is spot-on.

The twelve flute sonatas are available in at least three complete recordings: Verena Fischer, Klaus-Dieter Brandt and Léon Berben recorded them for Naxos (2008), Musica ad Rhenum for Brilliant Classics (2015), and Dan Laurin and Anna Paradiso for BIS (2014 and 2016). All three can be unequivocally recommended. The present disc is a nice addition in that it offers some vocal music, which is seldom performed, and a trio sonata. It is one of those recordings that attest to the quality of the oeuvre of the composer, and make one want to hear more. It is a perfect case for a relatively little-known master.

Johan van Veen

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Presto Music

Sonata for transverse flute and basso continuo No 4 in G (BeRI 204)
Sonata for transverse flute and basso continuo No 10 in E minor (BeRI 210)
Cantata in einer Taffel-Music (HRV 601):
Süße Zeiten, eilet nicht (aria)
Sonata for transverse flute No 8 in A (BeRI 208)
Bröllops Music (HRV 600):
I eder bästa vår (aria)
Trio sonata No 3 in E minor (BeRI 115)