Never mind the Italianate resonances of his surname. Johan Helmich Roman has been described as “the father of Swedish music”.
A contemporary of Handel, he in fact played under that composer in London for several seasons, and last Wednesday’s concert concluding this year’s Birmingham Early Music Festival brought the two of them together in telling juxtaposition.
Roman had the beating of Handel in the number of languages he set in his vocal music (Swedish was the killer-punch), and soprano Susanne Ryden proved her expertise in several tongues. She also brought an enchanting stage-presence, eyes involving us all, responsive even in her silent passages whilst listening to Mark Tatlow’s no-holds-barred harpsichord contributions, and vividly conveying the often exaggerated emotions of these baroque texts.
There were big cantatas here, but also charming little settings of Swedish proverbs by Roman. Tatlow delivered virile accounts of keyboard works by Purcell and Thomas Arne (whose tercentenary birth-year this is – had anyone spotted that?), and Ryden’s tones rode above Tatlow’s uncompromising registrations to communicate most tellingly.
But there were certain notes towards the top of her register which seemed to “stick” in the Barber acoustic (and this a hall ideally suited to baroque music). Never mind – the whole presentation was fascinating, and I was so glad to hear the vocal side of this Swedish composer I’d only known before through his vibrant orchestral music.
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