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Roberto SIERRA (b. 1953)
Fandangos (2000) [11:07]
Sinfonía No. 4 (2008-09) [20:14]*
Carnaval (2007) [18:13]*
Nashville Symphony Orchestra/Giancarlo Guerrero
rec. live, Laura Turner Hall, Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Nashville, Tennessee, USA, 19-21 April (Fandangos; Sinfonía No. 4), 20-22 September, 2012 (Carnaval)
* Premiere recordings
NAXOS 8.559738 [55:34]

This is the fourth Naxos instalment of the music of Puerto-Rican/US composer Roberto Sierra. It follows releases of his Piano Trios (8.559611), "Pro Pace" Missa Latina (8.559624), and “New Music with a Caribbean Accent” (8.559263), a mix of chamber works. This time Sierra’s music is in full instrumental garb, covering the gamut from complex and gritty to what is anything but.
 
So it is with the opener, Fandangos (2000), a winner for those inclined toward immediately likeable music. It orchestrates the Fandango attributed to Padre Antonio Soler (d. 1783), arguably Scarlatti's most melodically-gifted pupil, and it alludes to other fandangos as well. Sierra keeps to the original’s under-12-minute length, providing it with a cheerful, Rodrigo-like orchestration. Besides castanets and timpani to accent its infectious rhythms, a full complement of winds is featured. We hear trumpet, flutes, clarinets and piccolos for starters and there are lower-register brasses nearer the close. It largely abides by Soler’s late-Baroque rigour, yet what results is lush and appealing, post-romantic although never quite facile in expressiveness. Brief episodes of dissonance and unusual sonorities do appear, but only sporadically; while his teacher György Ligeti lurks in some Sierra works there are no obvious traces show here.
 
The Fandangos’ charms were confirmed on its well-received performance at the Proms, and there have been several others — some posted on YouTube. Still, a few music-lovers may be puzzled, as about an orchestration of Für Elise or a Chopin nocturne, enough to wonder: why? Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition certainly gained from Ravel’s intervention, but does the Soler? That’s not rhetorical, since Naxos makes it so affordable to decide for yourself. The original can be heard in dozens of fair to very decent solo recordings, many for piano. Like me, you may prefer Scott Ross on harpsichord in a live version, also on YouTube, where his deliciously nuanced reading does not falter even when someone slams a door off-camera.
 
Beyond that enjoyable taste-test, other, meatier rewards are in store. Sierra’s Fourth Symphony (2008-09) begins gently, but in no time begins to gather momentum, building tensions with serious, even stormy, intent. The music that emerges between its near-explosive rhythmic bursts is not by melodic variations or development, but through a profusion of colours that spring from a lucid, nimble disorder. The throbbing second movement, Rápido, involves pitched and unpitched percussion — including triangles, a celesta, xylophones and a piano — and brief episodes of harps that occasionally interrupt with refreshing evanescence.
 
Nothing in Sierra’s orchestral works smacks of the derivative, although Thea Musgrave is one composer they often call to mind. His harmonic language is thicker, while Musgrave’s — such as in The Seasons (Collins 15292) — is graced with Gallic wit and delicacy. Sierra also favours using the full orchestral panoply, and by the use of melodic cells or fragments both composers often suggest the seeming disarray of Jackson Pollock-like orchestral scoring. Framed within their larger musical landscapes — such as the pulsing of the Fourth’s second movement — Sierra, like Musgrave, is especially gifted at evoking an exuberant chaos through wind instruments.
 
The captivating third movement, Tiempo de Bolero, is perhaps the work’s most conventional. Its calm would raise no eyebrows in an early 20th century audience, despite juxtaposing a nervous jumble of instrumental activity against its dreamy stillness. Without resolving any tensions, the leading oboes and french horns ever so gradually converge with the orchestral cacophony. This is music likelier to allude to the slow Adagio assai of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G than to his Bolero — or anyone else’s, for that matter.
 
If the symphony up to this point has ratcheted up enough tensions to frazzle a chiropractor, its brisk last movement, Muy rápido y rítmico, is all about their resolution. Energetic and unexpectedly sunny, it comprises a wide range of dynamics and contrasting moods. A piano bounces out a dancing tune, there are sliding trombones, busy kettle drums and xylophones, and all culminate in a spectacular finale. Sure-footed and full of euphoric propulsion, this movement’s effervescent, salsa-like beat stirs the blood well after it’s played out.
 
This loquacious symphony is the disc’s winner: Germanic in grandeur and never rushed or aimed at simple effects. It is rich instead with a dazzling orchestral disorder of sometimes breathtaking beauty. Those so intrigued as to return to it will likely do so not for “the ride” nor to be swept away, but to gain a better grasp of its wealth of colours and tensions.
 
The five-movement Carnaval (2007) provides a no less impressive display of Sierra’s command of orchestral forces in a suite of five short movements. Those familiar with Schumann’s music may spot the allusions the composer points out in his liner-notes. Each movement is said to be inspired by mythical creatures, but the suggestion from the start is of the unruly, picaresque malicia that sizzles in all Latin-American outdoor carnivals, from Rio to Lima to Sierra’s native San Juan. Sphinxes is another turn at near-frozen soundscapes, although its eerie calm is broken this time by jocular passages of near-burlesque. Unicorn, the middle movement, is also shaped in long, tranquil lines reminiscent of Sibelius. The contrasting Dragons that follows simply smoulders, as if to outdo Revueltas with something closer to diabolical. In the last movement, the whole orchestra propels things with ceremonious momentum toward another grandiose end.
 
When it is not ingratiating, Sierra's orchestral music could be called avant-gardist for its complex textures, the avoidance of musical clichés, and for releasing its gifts only after patient listening. For all that, it is never aloof, difficult or academic. Those interested in this end of his musical spectrum may want to seek out his Vestigios Rituales, for two pianos, or Cinco Bocetos (Five Sketches) and Descarga (Discharge), for chamber groups—on Naxos 8.559263. His piano trios also reward close attention, sharing some of the freshness and dynamism of the Trio by my current favourite living British composer, John Pickard (Campion Cameo 2053). Lastly, the Koss Classics (KC-1021) recording of shorter orchestral works from 1989-91 is also well worth finding.
 
Sierra initially won me over with Cuatro versos (Urtext JBCC 047), setting me on his scent with tail wagging every which way. Dated 1999, it is a dissonant, astringent but passionate cello concerto that challenged at first, but proved richly rewarding. It reflects his immersion in Ligeti’s soundworld, the gnarlier end of 20th century music, while being deeply infused with a Caribbean sensibility. It located Sierra firmly in the camp of the forward-looking likes of Dutilleux, Lutoslawski and Gubaidulina. His less aggressive Fourth Symphony, with its subtly integrated infusion of Latin-American music, suggests that his name may some day be praised alongside those of Ginastera, Chávez and Villa-Lobos.
 
However that may turn out, these live Nashville Symphony Orchestra recordings under Giancarlo Guerrero show Sierra to be a composer to watch. The sound is crisp, and beautifully-layered. If you’re wondering what’s new and thrilling in the symphonic tradition, this release is definitely one not to miss.

Bert Bailey

Previous review: Byzantion


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