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Roberto SIERRA (b. 1953)
New Music with a Caribbean Accent
Vestigios rituales (1) (1984) [8:00]
Conjuros (2) (1982) [10:05]
Trio tropical (3) (1991) [17:33]
Cinco bocetos (4) (1984) [8:53]
Glosa a la sombra (5) (1987) [9:59]
Descarga, for piano and ten instruments (6) (1987-90) [12:42]
Cheryl Seltzer and Joel Sachs (pianos) (1)
Virginia Gutiérrez (soprano), Joel Sachs (piano) (2)
Mark Steinberg (violin), Maria Kitsopoulos (cello), Joel Sachs (piano) (3)
David Krakauer (clarinet) (4)
Ellen Lang (mezzo), David Krakauer (clarinet), Mia Wu (viola), Cheryl Seltzer (piano), Joel Sachs (conductor) (5)
Cheryl Seltzer (piano), Jayn Rosenfeld (flute), Nathan Williams (clarinet), Daniel Grabois (French horn), Richard Kelley (trumpet), Benjamin Herrington (trombone), Erik Charlston (percussion), Mark Steinberg (violin), Rachel Evans (viola), Maria Kitsopoulos (cello), Victor Kioulaphides (double bass), Joel Sachs (conductor) (6)
Continuum/Cheryl Seltzer and Joel Sachs (directors)
rec. January and November 1991, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, New York City

Be warned, anyone expecting a package tour of Caribbean rhythms and high spirits will be knocked off their bar stools by the crashing note clusters of Vestigios rituales. This intoxicating Caribbean cocktail from Puerto Rican Roberto Sierra is served with a hefty twist of Ligeti, not lime, and packs quite a punch. That said it’s not all high-octane stuff, and those of a more sensitive disposition will find plenty to enjoy in the disc’s more accessible offerings, Cinco bocetos  and Descarga.
It’s not surprising there is more than a passing resemblance to the sound world of György Ligeti, as Sierra studied with him at the Hamburg Musikhochschule. His big break came when he was appointed the Milwaukee Symphony’s composer in residence, before going on to a composition professorship at Cornell University.
Sierra has written a wide range of music, some of it especially for New York-based contemporary music ensemble Continuum. The New York Times has praised the group for its ‘viscerally satisfying programs’, and visceral is certainly the right word for the first work on this disc, the relatively early Vestigios rituales. Based on Afro-Caribbean ritual chants it is a mix of competing tempi and wild dynamics, with a hint of more traditional rhythms buried deep in its dense and spiky undergrowth.
Bracing stuff but the even earlier Conjuros (1982) is quite a contrast. It offers a sequence of mesmeric – and rather beautiful – chants with a distinctly African accent, recalling another, darker, period in the Caribbean past. Soprano Virginia Gutiérrez makes the most of these haunting vocalises, her voice ideally placed and warmly recorded.
‘En Do’, the first piece of Trio tropical, is another world again, with its edgy violin and pounding piano part. Cellist Maria Kitsopoulos adds some welcome weight and lyricism, especially in the movement’s more reflective moments. The balance between the players is fine, although the violin certainly has a razor’s edge to it. The sultry habanera with its rippling piano figures and cello accompaniment reminds one that this ‘Spanish’ dance has its roots much further west, its subtle rhythms nicely judged. The meditative ‘Intermezzo religioso y movimiento perpetuo’ evokes the cool gloom of a church or cathedral, while the hypnotic molto perpetuo is edgy, relentless, with admirably sustained tremolos from  Kitsopoulos.
The warm, breathy tones of the clarinet are a welcome foil, with some agile playing from David Krakauer. The clarinet sound is certainly attractive, close without being overbearing; the ‘Interludio nocturno’ is suitably atmospheric, the ‘Canción de la montaña’ rather more vigorous, yet both played with real character and flair.
The extended vocal scena ‘Glosa la sombra’ (‘Commentary upon the shadow’) is poet Joserramón Melendez’ bleak meditation on a Puerto Rican slum. Mezzo Ellen Lang sings movingly of the wasteland that the tourist never sees.
After this grit Descarga is a refreshingly transparent and lyrical change, with percussionist Erik Charlston adding a carnival air to the proceedings. Although it is a fairly recent work (1987-90) it is worlds way from the more rigorous and uncompromising soundscape of Vestigios rituales and the despair of island slums. But then that is good programming, offering listeners a varied menu, with something to please all palates.
Enterprising as ever, Naxos has served up another stimulating instalment in its American Classics series. For their part Continuum play with great verve and passion, a first-class showcase for new and challenging musical talent. Indeed, this is so much more than a relaxed and leisurely cruise to the tropics, it’s a real adventure.
Dan Morgan
Naxos American Classics page


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