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Roberto SIERRA (b.1953)
Missa Latina ‘Pro Pace’ (2005): (Introitus [5:36]; Kyrie [5:59]; Gloria [15:14]; Credo [20:56]; Offertorium [7:28]; Sanctus [5:27]; Agnus Dei [7:36])
Heidi Grant Murphy (soprano); Nathaniel Webster (baritone)
Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and Symphony Chorus/Andreas Delfs
rec. Uihlein Hall, Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, Milwaukee, 10 December 2008. DDD
NAXOS 8.559624 [68:17]
Experience Classicsonline

We are told that organised religion and classical music are institutions under threat in modern society. I find it rather interesting therefore that amongst the discs I have been reviewing recently have been three major contemporary settings of either the Mass or the Requiem Mass by composers from literally different corners of the world with widely differing musical aesthetics. This would seem to suggest the text and indeed the spiritual message behind it still exercises a powerful attraction for composers and indeed listeners whether are practising Christians or not. Likewise, I continue to be both amazed and grateful to Naxos for their ability to record so much remarkable music from around the world in powerful and convincing performances and make it available to music collectors at such a reasonable price. 

The disc here is a perfect case in point. I feel guilty saying it, but I am sure I am not alone, the name of Roberto Sierra was totally unknown to me. So when you combine a complete unknown with a Washington Times review of the first performance of a piece that says; "the most significant symphonic premiere in the District since the late Benjamin Britten's stunning War Requiem was first performed in the still-unfinished Washington National Cathedral in the late 1960s.” my curiosity was thoroughly piqued. Another laurel to cast at all of the three performances and particularly the creative team on this disc - every aspect of this disc both technical and musical is quite superb. The two soloists were those involved in the first performance reviewed above and they perform with all the authority and conviction that extended familiarity with a piece brings. Seemingly new to this musical feast is The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. I remember some excellent limited circulation CDs on the Koss label with Zdeněk Mácal from a few years back but trawling the web for this review they seem to have been absent in more recent times. This is the first appearance of the Milwaukee Symphony on Naxos and what a debut it is. Every section of the orchestra plays with power, accuracy and conviction and if for no other reason I will look forward to hearing any disc featuring the orchestra in the future.

In his brief but informative liner-note Roberto Sierra outlines how this work sprung from memories of hearing the Latin Mass while growing up in Puerto Rico. In using the title Missa Latina “Pro Pace” he has chosen to set the standard mass text with additional chants incorporated to underline the votive element in an appeal for peace in a troubled world. The use of Latin-American instruments and rhythms in sections of the Mass emphasises the influence of the country of his birth. This is a substantial work with its seven extended movements running to nearly seventy minutes. It was premiered at Washington’s Kennedy Centre in February 2006. Although it does not say the current performance is a live one I think I detected a couple of extraneous audience noises but as can be implied from that statement they are so slight as to matter not at all. Mentioning the Kennedy Centre is I think significant in two ways; one it underlines the fact that this is clearly a sacred work written for concert performance and also, by chance, that venue was the place for whose opening Leonard Bernstein wrote his Mass some 35 years earlier. I can imagine that the thing that makes a composer grind his teeth most is when his unique work is likened to the work of another. Sadly, it is a fact that when hearing a composer for the first time we all use as points of reference music and styles familiar to us. I would not want to labour the point because they are very different works in objective and result but the way in which popular idiom is fused with passages of more searching musical material making the progression through the Mass a theatrical rather than sacred experience is common to both works.

All of the Mass is written in a broadly tonal idiom and opens with an Introitus that immediately sets the tone with high strings suspended over pastoral woodwind figurations and atmospheric percussion. The soprano enters with an immediate plea for peace. As already mentioned soprano Heidi Grant Murphy is completely inside this part and sings with total conviction and assurance. Curiously the tonal quality of her voice changes through the performance - her final repeated cries of “pacem” in the Agnus Dei are quite exquisite - pure controlled and unforced. At other times her voice gains a more mature quality that I did not feel suited the desired simplicity of the music. Conversely Nathaniel Webster is more at ease in the declamatory sections but does not convey the essential relaxed easy humour of the more populist and rhythmic sections - he sounds a tad square. The quality of the engineering is evident as much in the quiet and reflective passages as in the more dramatic sections. Orchestral and choral textures are beautifully clear and detailed with the entire performing group placed in a warm but not overly resonant acoustic. The Uihlein Hall is the main concert venue for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and on this evidence it is a very fine hall indeed.

As the Introitus continues the soprano’s melismata soar over the chant-like first entry of the chorus before the orchestra slips quietly into the first of many overtly Latin-American rhythms - I like very much how this is treated in a mysterious almost ritualistic manner before the movement subsides into silence. The Kyrie immediately launches into sterner territory with descending orchestral scales grinding over and against each other like tectonic plates. Again in the background the Latin-American rhythms lurk. The sense is that the chorus act as the institutional church whilst the soloists represent a more individual response. I have no documentary proof to support this idea, it is a purely subjective response to the way in which the music is allocated and divided amongst the performers. After one last climax with funereal drums and fanfares the music dies away again with a sense of unresolved expectation. Not surprisingly the Gloria provides the first real outburst of exuberance with a riot of instrumental colour and rhythm. With apologies for any dental wear this causes - this did make me recall similar passages in the Bernstein Mass - even down to the use of a baritone in a similar leading/celebrant role. On a purely personal level I found the upbeat passages some of the least interesting in the work - I suppose that is because they are the most ‘obvious’ and do the least to confound one’s expectations.

The Credo that follows lies at the heart both structurally and emotionally of the whole work. It is also comfortably the longest and most complexly dramatic movement lasting nearly 21 minutes. The opening juxtaposes the verbal certainty of “I believe in one God” with music that is unsettled, full of doubt and uncertainty - it’s a fascinating musical contradiction and one that Sierra handles with great musico-dramatic skill. Having built to a nervy quasi-fugal climax the soloists find temporary rest with the words “et incarnatus” the lyrical solo lines intertwining over a walking-bass. The peace is short-lived and at almost the exact centre of the movement (track 4 10:40) - and by extension the work - the music builds towards the baritone’s declamation of “crucifixus”. The music here is sparse and foreboding. I particularly like the orchestral writing accompanying the words “judicare vivos et mortuos”. It has a wild dance-of-the-dead quality with the Caribbean instruments hammering away in a style far removed from the normal good natured rhythms associated with them. Some peace is restored by the final Amen although it feels more like a truce than peace. After the extended drama of the Credo there is little respite to be found in the Offertorium. Again a sense of searching and striving permeates the orchestral prelude of the movement before the baritone enters in more subdued mood than the previous movement.

The proceedings lighten for the choral setting of “Lauda Jerusalem tuum” before leading into a jubilant final Alleluia. Perhaps because I am naturally contrary I enjoyed the Sanctus least. To my ear it is the movement which is most self-consciously a crowd-pleaser. This is the movement which prompted the Washington Post critic to write: “the Sanctus could almost be turned into a pop song …” I’m not sure when that critic last listened to any chart music but I suspect he’s stuck in a decade far removed from our own. It’s an appealing melody for sure but it does not lie convincingly with the musical language of the rest of the work. Within that style frankly John Rutter has written better tunes. What we have here ends up sounding like one of those excruciating “modern” anthems that are meant to appeal to young people going to church. Fortunately we are soon back on track with the final movement, the Agnus Dei. Here, as mentioned earlier, Heidi Grant Murphy is in superb form, impassioned but lyrical with high-lying lines spun with ease over the chanting chorus. Her final appeals for “pacem” are absolutely spine-tinglingly beautiful [tr. 7, 3:30]. I would have been very happy for the work to end in this mood of rapt contemplation. The final “happy-ending” alleluia feels like an emotional dilution of what has immediately preceded it but at least it gives us one last example of the brilliance of all those involved.

If as a result of hearing a disc you wish to seek out more by the composer and performers involved then surely the CD must be deemed a success. So, by that measure this is something of a treasure. I see from the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra website that Andreas Delfs is no longer the Music Director of the orchestra - that being the case this is a pretty excellent legacy. As an appendix to this review - the liner-notes explain that the orchestra was the first to make available for download live recordings from its website. These include Sierra’s Third Symphony. Having mentioned earlier the orchestra’s absence from the CD market I have downloaded some performances with Andreas Delfs. These include a splendidly sonorous Richard Strauss Alpine Symphony for the princely sum of $1.49 and a Bruckner Symphony No. 7 for $4.99 - both in excellent sound recorded at 320 kbps. What an interesting concert season they have next year too! Definitely an orchestra to listen out for and I hope they become stalwarts of the Naxos catalogue. 

A powerful and individual major work performed with exemplary skill and commitment in superb sound.

Nick Barnard

see also review by Brian Reinhart  



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