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James Manheim, March 2012

Roberto Sierra’s music joins Eastern European modernism, classical forms, and the rhythms of his native Puerto Rico in a fresh synthesis that draws on the rhythmic vitality of the music of the Americas without aping specific traditions. These immensely enjoyable chamber works offer a good place to start with the music of this popular contemporary composer. The Trío Arbós, which specializes in Latin American music, gives vigorous, idiomatic performances. Highly recommended. © 2012 Read complete review

Gary Higginson
MusicWeb International, September 2011

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 (8.559263) entitled ‘New Music with a Caribbean Accent’ might be the next place to go.

Laurence Vittes
Gramophone, May 2011

Bold but firmly rooted works from a Puerto Rican with an individual voice

Some years ago I dismissed a handful of Puerto Rican composers as parodying Leonard Bernstein parodying Puerto Rican composers. On the opposite end of that spectrum comes the Puerto Rican-born, Cornell University-based Roberto Sierra, whose omnivorous appetite devours influences both high and low while his works consistently emerge fully digested.

These pieces, written between 1991 and 2008, reveal a wide array of sources—from the folkloric rhythm and timbres of Piano Trio No 1, Trio Tropical (1991) to the more atonal abstractions of Piano Trio No 2 (2002)—and yet seem resistant to the comfort zones of either vernacular language or rarified theory. Nor does his Fanfarria, aria y movimiento perpetuo (2000), commissioned for the Library of Congress’s Copland centennial and borrowing some of the elder composer’s sonorities, sound anything like, say, El salón México. Rather than a touristic tone poem, Sierra offers a work of strong musical contrasts consistently pointing outward while its core remains in place.

Piano Trio No 3, Romántico (2008), written for the Madrid-based Trío Arbós, synthesis the sweeping gestures of the First Trio with the extended tonality of the Second, running full circle through the composer’s musical world. By turns rhythmically solid and melodically free, Sierra’s music proves listeners can accept any extension of tonality as long as it swings.

MusicWeb International, April 2011

Rather curiously, this release marks the second time Naxos have published the Piano Trio no.1 by Puerto Rican composer Roberto Sierra. It first appeared in 2007 on their first disc devoted to his music, entitled ‘New Music with a Caribbean Accent’ (Naxos 8.559263). There it was performed by members of the Continuum ensemble. This is now in fact the third CD of Sierra’s works released by Naxos. The second, his Missa Latina, is reviewed here.

The three piano trios featured here span nearly two decades. The jerky, hammered rhythm of the opening bars of Piano Trio no.1, segueing into a lilting Latino-jazz section, announces immediately a composer of considerable originality. The work is subtitled Trío Tropical, and the three movements incorporate the rhythms and colours of Sierra’s childhood in Puerto Rico. A sultry Habanera nocturna follows the first movement, and the last, in two contrasting parts, transforms from a languorous Intermezzo religioso into an exhilarating moto perpetuo, in which the three instruments take a turn in the spotlight like sophisticated jazz soloists.

The spectacularly imaginative Piano Trio no.2 is a second trío tropical, based on a twelve-tone row untransposed and uninverted. This must be the most immediately attractive ‘serial’ music ever written! The first movement is entitled Clave de Mediodía. Clave is the rhythmic base of Afro-Cuban music, whose jerky pulse plays through the movement, which ends surprisingly with thirty seconds of minimalism! In his detailed liner-notes, Sierra describes the agitated, virtuosic second movement, Espejos (‘Mirrors’), as a “mirage of counterpoint”, and the last, which follows a brief scherzo, as “music for an imaginary ritual”, likening the throbbing, almost Stravinskian rhythms to those of Afro-Caribbean drumming.

The Fanfarria, Aria y Movimiento Perpetuo is a shortish but memorable work in one movement for violin and piano. Sierra writes that the opening intervals are reminiscent of sonorities that Copland employed in his music, but that is a purely personal view—any link here with Copland seems technical at best. Sierra’s stated intention for this piece, to create a “rhythmic evocation of salsa”, likewise seems open to other interpretations—this is as much a European trio as it is a Latin American one. One thing that is certain is its virtuosity, particularly in the torrid perpetuo finale, superbly performed by violinist Borrego and pianist Garvayo.

The recent Piano Trio no.3, dedicated to and premiered by the Trio Arbós, is subtitled Romántico, “to denote the expansive and broad musical gestures evocative of late-nineteenth-century chamber music”, in Sierra’s words. At the same time, however, he again integrates Afro-Caribbean elements, succeeding once more in paying homage to the popular music of Puerto Rico by seamlessly weaving those elements into a considerable work of art music. The third movement, Con gran sentimiento, como un ‘Bolero’, is a particularly beautiful example; this is not Ravel’s dance-like Bolero, but a Latin American ballade. The thrilling final Agitado moves back and forth between salsa and Austro-Germanic tradition with exceptional skill and invention.

The Arbós Trio have been playing together since they were founded in 1996 and have built up a sizeable discography, principally of Hispanic music. They perform Sierra’s often virtuosic music with great accomplishment and conviction. Recording quality is very good throughout, but even if it were bad, this would still be an outstanding disc., March 2011

there is a strong Spanish influence in all these works, whose Latin and jazz elements are intermingled with Romantic-era gestures as well as considerable modernism (Sierra studied with György Ligeti). All the trios have movements whose tempos or moods are given in Spanish—a clear indicator of the composer’s predilections. The first, “Trio Tropical,” dates to 1991 and is the most “ethnic” in sound. The second (2002) and third (“Romántico,” 2008) provide a greater blend of influences. And the short Fanfarria provides an interesting comparison with the third and final movement of the first trio: both open with slow, expressive sections and then switch to what the composer calls a movimiento perpetuo, but the handling of the material is quite different—and not solely because Fanfarria is only for violin and piano rather than piano trio.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2011

Born in Puerto Rico in 1953, Roberto Sierra’s musical education took him to Europe where his composition mentors included Gyorgy Ligeti. Now living in America, his early works embraced a modern view of tonality, but in more recent years he has built into that style the use of twelve-tone techniques harking back to the Second Viennese School. The three Piano Trios composed over a period of seventeen years show this search for a personal musical voice, the earliest of the three dating from 1991, subtitled Trio Tropical, and introduces jazz elements into the rhythmic structure reflecting music he heard in his younger years. It brings a rather quirky and jagged feel to the first of three movements, the central Habanera as seen in some distorted dream. The finale combines this nocturnal mood with the animated perpetuo that forms a complicated and disjointed framework. The Second came eleven years later, the opening two movements turning their back on tonality, and only in passing moments was it to return later in the score. Yet by 2008 the Third, subtitled ‘Romantico’, he turns back his own clock, and while those whose taste extends little further than late nineteenth century will find little which relates to the title, there is an structure of piano trios from yesteryear. The disc is completed by the Fanfarria for violin and piano, another perpetuo with a slow lyrical section. I guess it is all fiendishly difficult to play, not simply in the notation but in the complexity of texture. One can only admire the Spanish-based Trio Arbos. Sound quality is excellent.

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