Those who have found their feet tapping along to the Puerto Rican scenes
in Bernstein’s West Side Story
will find themselves instantly at
home in the opening movement of Roberto Sierra’s Salsa Symphony.
Many of the same ingredients are there: the Latin American rhythms, yes, but
also the sparkling and pointillistic orchestration, the subtle changes of
character and pace, and the spicy modern harmonies. Indeed, throughout the
first movement I continually found myself wondering whether this symphony
really belonged more to the category of light music. After that, the second
movement, a Habañera
, came as quite a surprise and indeed a shock.
The style suddenly plunges into a mood of semi-nocturnal nightmare with
owlish creatures flitting across the landscape – the whole beautifully
realised, and seemingly designed to subvert any suspicions that this music
is merely superficial. The scoring again remains masterly, and I immediately
encored this movement with just as much enjoyment the second time round.
After that the scherzo-like Dansas
and the Jolgorio
finale, although less distinctive, were lent a sense of dark undertow and
foreboding. This was only reinforced by the return of the second movement
material as an interlude during the closing pages of the score. The playing
of the orchestra is committed and well-enunciated, and the recording enables
the listener to hear every detail.
The second piece on this disc is a sort of Puerto Rican ‘take’ on the idea
of the baroque chaconne or passacaglia. Here the sense of mastery is even
more evident from the start, with continual changes of scoring and
perspective which tickle the ear at each return of the principal theme.
builds to a sonorous and imposing climax, but then
something seems to happen and the music goes disconcertingly off the boil.
The treatments of the passacaglia theme continue relentlessly to succeed
each other without much further sense of the overall shape of the music
itself. Again I replayed the track, but this time the repetition seemed only
to emphasise the sense of aimlessness that emerged halfway through. Mind
you, a quarter of an hour is a long time to explore what is really quite a
is the most recent work on this disc by some seven
years, and once again I am afraid that the process of academic exploration
seems to overtake the inspiration of the composer to an undesirable degree.
The work is a set of variations on a theme that is subjected to all the
usual modifications – inversion and so on – but it is not until towards the
end that a real sense of momentum and purpose manifests itself. The
orchestra is also less comfortably inside the music here than in the rest of
the programme, although elsewhere their expertise is notable.
The final work on the disc is the song-cycle Beyond the Silence of
, which was also the first to be composed. The settings of poems
by the Native American M Scott Momaday conjure up echoes of Ravel’s
, but it is difficult to come to terms with the music
itself because of the surprising decision of Naxos not to supply the words
either in the booklet or online, contrary to their usual praiseworthy
policy. The shape of Sierra’s often beautiful phrases, with their long-drawn
lines, and the almost total obscurity of Martha Guth’s
diction with hardly a word audible, makes this omission catastrophic to any
appreciation of the work. Nor is Naxos’s booklet up to their usual
standards. The booklet notes by Silvia Lazo fluctuate between severe
technical description and vague hyperbole when describing both composer and
music. She inexplicably describes the Habañera
movement of the
symphony as “exuberant”. The biographical note about the conductor is even
more curious; having stated that he has “conducted most of the leading
orchestras in the United States” it then proceeds to list them, transporting
Montreal geographically southward across the Canadian border but also making
it appear that none of San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston or New
York have any leading orchestras - none of them being mentioned.
The uncharacteristically poor presentation from Naxos is a pity, because
there is much in this music to enjoy and savour if the listener had been
given a bit more assistance and guidance. Sierra seems to have been quite
lucky on CD – Archiv currently lists 47 recordings – but of the works here
only the symphony has been the subject of a rival issue. Those who found
themselves enjoying West Side Story
will find rewards of the same
kind here too.
Paul Corfield Godfrey