From Sweden, Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture

After the fun of Christmas cookies and meatballs, the ongoing "From Sweden" festival at the Barbican presented an altogether more serious affair.

After the fun of Christmas cookies and meatballs, the ongoing "From Sweden" festival at the Barbican presented an altogether more serious affair. Festivals built around national identity are tempting since national pride works wonders as a financial lever. But the music of one country doesn't necessarily translate well to the taste of another.

Music of the 18th century was juxtaposed with that of 20th. The works of neither of the two main composers were known to me. Billed simply as Roman and Larsson, they looked like two contemporary composers, with nothing to suggest otherwise. But Johan Helmich Roman lived from 1694 to 1758, and was dubbed "the father of Swedish music", and a medley of movements from his best-known work, the orchestral suite Drottningholms-Musik, confirmed his pedigree.

This is music written for a royal occasion - the wedding of Crown Prince Adolf - so it is unsurprising that Roman, so impressed by the music of Handel when studying in England, should adopt that composer's ceremonial approach - it is not for nothing that Roman also became known as "the Swedish Handel". But these 10 dances - at moments, straight out of Water Music or Fireworks - were charming, elegantly phrased and sensitively played by the English Chamber Orchestra.

Tobias Ringborg conducted efficiently, soon taking up his fiddle as soloist in an equally Handelian and equally charming Concerto in D minor by Roman. Sandwiched between was echt Handel: "Let the Bright Seraphim" and "Where E'er You Walk", which introduced the lovely soprano voice of Ingela Bohlin, focused and fresh. (The splendid trumpet soloist was unattributed.)

Lars-Erik Larsson's Förklädd Gud ("A God Disguised") occupied the second half. According to the inadequate programme book (without texts or names of many performers), it's "a 'lyrical suite', a form particularly favoured at Swedish Radio". Written in 1937, the work is a time warp - 19th-century German Romanticism, Wagner, Grieg, Elgar and Sibelius rolled into one - with poems (by Hjalmar Gullberg) recited between musical episodes, performed by solo soprano, baritone, chorus and chamber orchestra.

Michael Maloney was a magnificent reciter, Anders Larsson a fine, gravelly baritone, Bohlin again truly impressive, the Tallis Chamber Choir in superb form, all well supported by the ECO. Too bad that the occasional moment of inspiration in this work is so overwhelmed by "um-cha-cha" rhythms, solid four-square phrases and a folksiness barely distinguishable from sentimental kitsch.

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