In her new two-CD set Johann Helmich Roman’s flute sonatas (Caprice 2007; CAP 22060), flutist Maria Bania provides a well-written short biography of this “father of Swedish music”. Stockholm-born Roman (1694-1758), a talented violinist, was in London between 1716 and 1721 and played in Handel’s orchestras (the King’s Theatre and later the Royal Academy). Thus he participated at at least seven of Handel’s operas; “operas at the highest European level and with the most eminent singers of his time.” Unsurprisingly, “it was a reluctant Roman who returned to a Stockholm that had neither opera house nor public concerts.”
I have sympathy for the man. Single-handedly, it seems, he set about cranking up Swedish music life, which had been sleeping during the previous years of war, he composed, organized and played and made himself a name in history.
The flute sonatas are original pieces in a predominantly Italianate Handelian idiom with a rather moderate share of Roman-isms such as some unexpected breaches in structure and harmony. Under the layer of solid High-Baroque compositional craftsmanship, we sense an ease of inventing passages and modulations (as opposed to characteristic melodies or workable counterpoint) and a certain reluctance to select and discard. Still, these pieces are pleasant to listen to, especially in this excellent version (Maria Bania, traverso, with Lars-Ulrik Mortensen, harpsichord, Jane Gower, bassoon and Thomas Pitt, cello).
In his Swedish Mass (1752), however, Roman pushes some of the less convincing characteristics of his style to the limit. This is, at least, the impression one gets during rehearsals. The problem with getting a good idea of a work as a whole during rehearsals is, of course, that the movements are usually grouped together to suit the performers: the tenor has missed his plane, the soprano has to catch the 5:20 train; coffee at 4:15; the choir comes at six; the oboe players are free after seven – that kind of thing. The continuo player sits through the whole rehearsal day performing snippets and getting grumpy with poor Roman, who has, in fact, no responsibility for his piece being butchered in this fashion.
Nevertheless, Friday last week I went home with a substantial musical hangover. How is it possible, I asked myself, that someone produces sequences of such utter clumsiness and banality alongside with the most securely applied, most modern – almost Mozartean – harmonies? How can a composer who is capable of single bars of absolutely breathtaking beauty destroy that bliss with the following two inexpert chords without ever noticing? What makes him so impatient that he seems incapable of building up and maintaining a specific mood longer than three bars at most? Why does he persist in silly syncopations and unprepared hemiolas that make the work difficult to get together while they add about as much quality to the music as do the pineapple chunks to Pizza Hawaii?
The reason is, as everyone always says, that Roman here pioneered in matching the Swedish text with musical phrasing. But this can’t be the true reason for his clumsiness. Why would adhering to a specific language result in such maddening quality shifts?
In any case, after a day of rehearsals, this work seemed to me a gigantic waste of my patience. I only learned about its true quality at the performance itself: it is clearly fun to sing; most of the time it engages the choir and the soloists in quick succession or simultaneously, which results in a sensation of togetherness that is absent from the big oratorios; it is fun to play through (as opposed to rehearsing in bits); it is not too long for the performers or the audience; and for the continuo player it is a great challenge to properly support the text. I admit that I returned from the Saturday performance in a much mellower mood – and also slightly embarrassed: do all those large, heavy oratories slowly turn us into snobs?