Roberto SIERRA (b.1953)
Chamber Works: Piano Trio No. 1 The Tropical (1991) [16.55]; Piano Trio No. 2 (2002) [13.53]; Fanfarria, aria y movimiento for violin and piano (2000) [6.28]; Piano Trio No. 3 Romantico (2008) [15.50]
Trio Arbós (Miguel Borrego (violin); José Miguel Gómez (cello); Juan Carlos Garvayo (piano))
rec. 5-7 February 2009, Chamber Hall, Auditorio Nacional, Madrid, Spain
NAXOS 8.559611 [53.05]

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This is the third Naxos disc to be devoted to the Puerto Rican composer Roberto Sierra. It forms part of the ever-burgeoning Naxos American Classics series. Sierra is a figure little known in the UK although he did have a work, Fandangos, played in the 2002 Proms. He’s also scarcely known in Europe but has been consistently making a reputation for himself across the Pond. For me this has proved to be my first encounter with him.

His Piano Trio No. 1 subtitled The Tropical is a good place to start. Its rhythmic first movement (En do - In C) was inspired by “Latin Jazz elements of the music I heard on the radio as a child”. The second movement is redolent of hot Spanish climes and is a Habanera Nocturna – the mood is: drinks on the balcony overlooking the cityscape at midnight. The third movement is a brief Intermezzo religioso; the South Americans are still very religious. This is connected to a Movimiento perpetuo in which a rhythmic semiquaver ostinato is continuously passed between the instruments under a jagged, jazz-like melodic line. What I like about this Trio is that it has its own distinct profile which gives the piece an individual character and ambience.

Again the next work has its own profile and character. As you listen to the Piano Trio No. 2 of eleven years later you realize what an eclectic Sierra is. This is a twelve-tone work with the same untransposed row used in each movement. Don’t be put off. The first is almost pointillistic but also highly rhythmic. It is entitled Clave de mediodia and the clave is the “underlying rhythmic background of the salsa”. The next movement – Espejos - uses the row as a series of fascinatingly overlapping mirrors like a “mirage”, the composer says. The third movement acts as a very brief Scherzo; it is called, appropriately enough, a Juego - a game. The finale is exciting and the composer comments that the “three instruments join in rhythms that resemble Afro-Caribbean drumming”. The work carries over two characteristics from the First Trio: the ostinato patterning, especially in the finale, and an element of modern jazz and dance. It’s terrific stuff.

A brief work now fills the gap before the Third Trio. It’s a sort of chamber overture. The Fanfarria, aria y movimiento for violin and piano was written as part of the Copland centennial celebrations and, according to the composer’s notes is “based on the kind of open intervals and triads reminiscent of sonorities that Aaron Copland favoured in his work”. I don’t hear these sounds myself but I do hear salsa rhythms in the opening section and found the final Movimiento perpetuo as evocative of salsa music as one can imagine. It’s brilliantly played.

The Third Piano Trio, composed seventeen years after the first, is subtitled Romantico and has four brief movements each bearing a descriptive title. Sierra decided that he wanted to write more lyrical and traditional work hence the opening movement Con profunda being in sonata form. He follows this with a Scherzo called a Veloz which is in unsettling 5/8 time. Then follows a beautiful and finely-shaped movement Con gran sentimento which is almost reminiscent of Romantic Spanish music. Finally there’s an Agitado which Sierra says is based on Puerto Rican folk-tunes. It reflects a 3+3+2 pattern and rises to a stirring climax. Appropriately enough it was first performed in Asturias.

Rather to my surprise, I have enjoyed meeting this composer and his music more than I was expecting. The performances are superb and the recording is of a fine quality and well balanced. This is a disc I shall happily return to. No doubt I will look further for this composer, perhaps the earlier Naxos CD of Sierra (8.559623) entitled ‘New Music with a Caribbean Accent’ might be the next place to go.

Gary Higginson

I enjoyed meeting this composer and his music more than I had been expecting.