Roberto SIERRA (b. 1953)
Sinfonia No. 3 'La Salsa' (2005) [28.31]
Borikén (2005) [14.14]
El Baile (2012) [9.36]
Beyond the Silence of Sorrow* (2002) [22.20]
Martha Guth* (soprano)
Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra/Maximiano Valdés
rec. Sala Sinfónica Pablo Casals, San Juan, 10-13 September 2014
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. Borikén 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 short theme.

El Baile 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 Sorrow, 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 Shéhérazade, 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 cantilena 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

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