Reviews of the CD Roberto Sierra: Piano Works

These are instant classics – they should be the next set of studies to be surmounted by serious pianists. [Bengtson’s] peerless technique and pianism are exactly what the devilishly difficult studies need to be effective.

SIERRA: Studies in Rhythms & Sonorities; Lyric Pieces; Album for the Young

Matthew Bengtson, p – IBS 72022 – 67 minutes

The music of prominent Puerto Rican composer Roberto Sierra (b. 1953) runs the gamut from Latin-tinged crowd peasers to rigorous modernist works downstream of Ginastera and his teacher, Ligeti. This program of short piano pieces belongs (mostly) to the latter group. The virtuosic Studies in Rhythms and Sonorities (2017) are written in the spirit of the piano studies by Ligeti and Nancarrow. They concentrate on advanced pedaling techniques, contrasting dynamics, and complex rhythmic interplay, presented with breathless, hyperkinetic energy. These are instant classics – they should be the next set of studies to be surmounted by serious pianists.

The Lyric Pieces (2018) lie far away from Grieg and much closer to the fragmented cubism of Stravinsky. Abrupt tonal shifts and violent intrusions abound; he often shuffles material between the pieces, so that a thought may be abandoned, revisited, and completed several miniatures later.

The Album for the Young (2017) is comparatively tamer. They are all characteristic pieces with friendly titles, though the music is still often quite dissonant and rambunctious – the cacophanous VII ‘Thunderstorm’ is a case in point. I find it hard to believe that they are suitable, as he says, for very young players – though perhaps with the right presentation they will broaden the minds of young listeners.

Matthew Bengtson needs no introduction if you are acquainted with his marvelous Scriabin (Romeo 7308, J/A 2015). His peerless technique and pianism are exactly what the devilishly difficult studies need to be effective. He dispatches the lesser (though by no means limited) challenges of the other pieces with ease and flashiness – though he could pull back on the throttle for some of the calmer children’s pieces. But that’s just a quibble – this is astonishing playing of demanding and fascinating piano works. Let’s hear his Ligeti and Nancarrow!

FARO (Nathan Faro, American Record Guide, 2023)

On a scale of one to ten I would give it an “eleven” –  It is magnificent and very pleasant to listen to as well as intense. In my house a real hit. Highly recommended.

Read the original review online (Spanish)

Roberto Sierra: Piano Works. Matthew Bengtson: piano. Produced by IBS Classical, Granada 2022. Miguel Ángel Pérez Martín – 29/09/2022

There are instruments that define an entire musical style. It happens with guitar and flamenco, saxophone and jazz, electric guitar and rock, rebec and folk … and piano and classical music.

But the piano has technically improved a lot in two hundred years, they are perfect sound-producing machines. I say sounds because they are not always “notes” for example with the “prepared piano” or with the new piano amplification techniques through electronics, extending the range of sounds that the viewer can hear, resonances, maintenance of the notes, for example this album does not use these techniques, a perfect acoustic piano is heard.

Roberto Sierra is a composer from Puerto Rico who works in the United States collaborating with important orchestras and through a well-known pedagogical work, he has been named a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. I had not heard of his works until now.

For his part, the performer, Matthew Bengtson, defines himself as a musician’s pianist, I suppose he means that he is intensely dedicated to the piano, his technique proves it. His repertoire ranges from William Byrd to Ligeti. He performs in the main auditoriums of Europe and America with outstanding success. The best thing that can happen to the works on this CD.

The disc is magnificent. It consists of three very well differentiated parts: Rhythmic and Sound Studies, Lyrical Pieces, Album for the Young.

The first – Rhythmic and Sound Studies – requires an amazing technique: atonalism, clusters, constant contrasts. It is the one that demands a more intense listening on the part of the listener or the spectator of the recitals. Magnificent, very rewarding. The “state of the art” of the current piano without a doubt.

The second part – Lyrical Pieces – is also about short pieces that are easier to listen to, the melody is easily recognized and the expression is more lyrical – obviously – and more emotional.

The third part – Album for the Young – are pieces intended for musical education and their names respond to this function: Folk Dance, Raindrops, Latin Dance, Song, Snow, Meditation, Postlude are some of the titles.

Perhaps, to give the review a personal touch, I could say that the order, if I had to choose, would be from least to greatest listening demand. But it has no influence on the final result.

On a scale of ten I would give it an “eleven”. It is magnificent and very pleasant to listen to as well as intense. In my house a real hit. Highly recommended, another achievement of this magnificent editor and Paco Moya.

I guess it’s easy to get it in the usual stores, if not: and enjoy.

– Miguel Ángel Pérez Martín, Doce Notas, 09/29/2022

We are here to recommend what this album deserves for its quality, for its freshness, and its excellence: Gold.”

Whoever isn’t aware of this composer, the Puerto-Rican Roberto Sierra, student of György Ligeti 40 years ago at the Hochschule für Musik in Hamburg, and the North-American pianist Matthew Bengtson, teaching as Associate Professor at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance, will be in for a revelation listening to this album, showing the accustomed quality at IBS Classical.

Recorded at the Auditorio Manuel de Falla in Granada between the 24th and 27th of October, 2021, the album contains forty-one tracks, with a total of almost sixty-seven minutes, without waste. It reveals the sound universe of very current music that will probably pass the test of time due to the quality of its elaboration … although here, as in few others, the fact of recreation takes on superlative importance, that close and necessary relationship between composer and interpreter to complete the reality of the reception by the listener (not just the casual listener). If Sierra creates, Bengtson recreates. Once again, the pianist creates the music written by the composer and skillfully recreates himself in the expression of the sound discourse, bringing us closer to the reality of a thought that transcends tonal or atonal, rhythmic or polyrhythmic, through a complex language capable of connecting (as do the extremes) with the simple, in a salad of chaotic appearance, conscientiously structured, of minimalism and fractals, flowing between the dreamlike, the beautiful, and the ancestral.

The album represents a contribution of great quality, whether it pleases more or less, which is justified with incalculably greater forcefulness than the outrenoir success of the recently deceased hundred-year-old French painter Pierre Soulages. The difference between composer and painter lies in whether the occurrence is capable of contributing some content, or merely remains a formalistic game. Conceptualism and cultism are old issues, and we are not here to talk about the philosophy of art, although in part we would have to take the work of the Frenchman [the painter Soulages] with philosophy and resignation; but, we are here to recommend what this album deserves for its quality, for its freshness, and its excellence: Gold.

– Antonio Soria, Melómano, La Revista de Música Clásica

I have to count Bengtson’s heaven-storming traversal of the Estudios rítmicos y sonoros among the most thrilling piano recordings I’ve heard in recent years. … a triumph.

A new IBS Classical release features Matthew Bengtson performing works for solo piano by Roberto Sierra (b. 1953). The three collections of brief pieces—Estudios rítmicos y sonoros, Piezas líricas, and Album for the Young—were composed during the years 2017–18. In his superb liner notes, the composer relates: “Although the three works are very different in character and in the way I approach the piano, they share the same pitch materials: four symmetrical scales that form the basis for all their melodic and harmonic content.” Sierra explains that the 12 Studies in Rhythms and Sonorities “harken back to the grand virtuoso tradition of piano pieces by Chopin and Liszt.” Both Sierra and Bengtson (who provides his own engaging written commentary) attest to the virtuoso challenges posed by these pieces. In the tradition of Chopin and Liszt (and others), the Studies in Rhythms and Sonorities requires a virtuoso technique. But the virtuoso demands are not limited to finger work. Sierra also explores a creative use of the three pedals in order to create new and complex sounds. Complexity may also be found in Sierra’s dense and shifting rhythms. As Bengtson comments, “They demand the utmost not only in a player’s physical technique, courage, and sheer velocity, but also their intellectual capacity.”

If Chopin and Liszt are inspirations for the type of music exemplified in Sierra’s Studies in Rhythms and Sonorities, then one might anticipate the spirit of Grieg to hover over the Lyric Pieces. But Sierra cautions: “Only two aspects evoke Grieg: the title itself and the idea of piano miniatures.” Here, Stravinsky provides an influence, emphasized by Sierra’s dedication of the work to the Russian composer’s memory. In particular, Sierra acknowledges Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments (the Russian composer’s own memorial tribute to Claude Debussy).

In the Lyric Pieces, Sierra employs the Symphonies of Wind Instruments’ “use of stratification and discontinuity…. In Piezas Líricas I composed a series of miniatures that become fragmented and can suddenly appear in the middle of another miniature, or can interrupt or be interrupted by other miniatures.” Although the Lyric Pieces are, as a whole, far more introspective than the Studies in Rhythms and Sonorities, they pose their own performance hurdles. Bengtson comments: “The mosaic-like composition style presents numerous technical challenges because of the precision required to shift rhythm, dynamics, and accents on a dime.”

The concluding Album for the Young evokes Schumann’s composition of the same name, as well as his Kinderszenen. Many of the brief narrative works are within the technical grasp of youngsters, but Sierra intended his Album for the Young “for pianists of all ages.” As one might expect, the Album for the Young offers music that is the most accessible of the three collections, both for performer and audience. It is also the one that most overtly incorporates Latin-American musical elements, a foundational aspect of Sierra’s music.

From the virtuoso pyrotechnics of the Studies, to the introspection and austerity of the Lyric Pieces, to the naïve charm of Album for the Young, Matthew Bengtson is a master of all technical and interpretive hurdles. I have to count Bengtson’s heaven-storming traversal of the Estudios rítmicos y sonoros among the most thrilling piano recordings I’ve heard in recent years. The combination of Sierra’s music, Bengtson’s assured and fiery execution, and the remarkably lifelike recorded sound is hair-raising. Perhaps the most important point to be made is that throughout all 41 tracks of this recording, Bengston presents each piece in an individual, and highly musical vein. There is never a sense of routine. Quite the contrary, Bengtson’s enthusiasm for this repertoire (expressed in his liner notes) permeates the recording. Interesting and telling, I think, that Bengtson’s appreciation and analysis of Sierra’s music replaces the kind of artist bio (“among the most sought-after pianists of his generation, until they found him”) that typically occupies the printed materials. Matthew Bengtson’s performances are a triumph. All gifted contemporary composers should receive this level of advocacy. Highly recommended.


– Ken Meltzer in Fanfare (July/Aug 2023)

This is stunning piano playing, completely in the service of a major composer of our time.

Firstly, it is good to hear pianist Matthew Bengtson in a solo capacity: I missed out on his Scriabin Sonatas, but I did enjoy his contributions to a disc of the music of Curt Cacioppo (Fanfare 44:5), as well as a disc of cello and piano music by the composer here, Roberto Sierra (Fanfare 41:5). In the last decade, Sierra has brought the piano forward in his compositional focus. The three works here represent his work in the sphere of piano collections: smaller pieces brought together to form one larger entity, and Sierra himself links this to the practices of the Baroque period.

Although cast in Sierra’s own vernacular, the Estudios ritmicos y sonoros (Studies in Rhythms and Sonorities) are clearly referencing the Romantic piano tradition. One can hear the technical challenges writ large here, in performances of real fire by Bengtson. We hear the importance of gesture in Estudio No. 3, while in the first Sierra plays with sonority via very careful and precise sustaining pedal indications. The madcap Estudio No. 6 is a stand-out; or try Bengtson’s way with Sierra’s accents in No. 5, and how he contrasts that later with the most expressive lyricism. No. 7 is another sparkling demonstration of rhythmic virtuosity, this time with a headlong close. There is lyricism here, too, in No. 8, while No. 9 contrasts pure, jittery energy with moments of peace, and No. 10 has a lightness and cheekiness that invokes, for this listener at least, the spirit of a post-Debussy Puck. Talking of Debussy, the final Estudio, with its buzzing texture, seems reminiscent of the French master’s “Feux d’artifice” Prélude on some level.

Harmonically, Sierra is a master, creating a consistent soundworld that threads through all 12 Estudios. One can also hear how ostinato and rhythmic displacement are important here, but over all of this is an undying curiosity about the possibilities of the modern piano. Bengtson is surely the ideal interpreter, presenting a variegated, ever-fascinating surface while clearly understanding the underlying processes. The fine piano recording provided here is vital for a piece that examines piano sonority so microscopically (Bengtson plays on a clearly most beautifully maintained Kawai SK-EX).

The last set of Etudes to make such an impression on me was that by Ligeti (surely not coincidentally Sierra’s teacher). Sierra’s Estudios can surely be mentioned in the same breath, and deserve equal currency. The greatest compliment I can pay Bengtson is that it is the sheer musicality he brings to Sierra’s score, the way he brings out the variety contained within, that is so impressive.

After the muscular twelfth Estudios and the plethora of technical challenges the set pours on the player, the Piezas liricas seem like balm. While the title invokes Grieg, the methodology tends more towards Stravinsky (to whose memory the set is dedicated). Although the initial atmosphere is calm, some of the bases of this piece are those of interruption and dislocation: Fragmentation and sudden juxtaposition become very much part of Sierra’s landscape, and Bengtson’s ability to negotiate these is mightily impressive. In his excellent commentary the pianist refers to this work as Cubist, and listening with a Cubist ear (!) helps enormously in understanding this set. Bengtson’s ability to change musical direction at a microsecond’s notice is a vital part of his success in this performance. The delicacy of Pieza No. 7 is particularly impressive, and it is certainly true that the recording plus the acoustic of the Auditorium Manuel de Falla in Granada helps the success of this performance immensely. Perhaps the final piece, No. 14, is the most sheerly beautiful, and the playing of it here is phenomenal.

There is no missing the Schumann reference in the title Album for the Young, and Sierra composes with a light touch, giving his pieces pithy, immediately graspable titles—“Raindrops,” “Thunderstorm,” At the lake,” and so on. There are Latin American elements here absent in the Schumann model, though. Bengtson is highly characterful, not least in “Latin Dance” (the fourth piece), while his fine cantabile allows for the ensuing “Song” to indeed sing. There are technical challenges in the “Toccatina” certainly not found in Schumann’s Kinderszenen (the other obvious Schumann reference). The pieces are but snippets, deliberately so. Some movements seem to invite expansion, “Autumn” (the eighth piece) in particular, while the static beauty of “Snow” seems perfect in and of itself. Bengtson’s performance of the highly gestural “Snow” is impeccable, full of sparkling beauty; the same could apply as well to the wonderful “Moonlight.”

This is stunning piano playing, completely in the service of a major composer of our time. The disc program is perfectly judged, too, with three very different sets of pieces providing perfect contrasts. Every aspect is in place, including high recording standards and detailed notes by both composer and performer.

– Colin Clarke in Fanfare (July/Aug 2023)

Matthew Bengtson, best known for his outstanding Scriabin, certainly has the measure of this music, relishing its timbral play and tossing off its tricky rhythmic gestures with astonishing confidence and clarity. The Estudios sound unfailingly musical … a major release.

If you look at the score of Estudios rítmicos y sonores, you’re apt to be dazed. Yes, there are other piano scores that match its intricacy, even exceed it—those of Sorabji and Boulez, in their very different ways, spring to mind. Still, Roberto Sierra clearly embraces complexity: harmonic, timbral, and especially rhythmic. He’s the sort of composer, for instance, who can happily write a string of 30 measures where the time signatures (including such tricky time signatures as 11/16 and 14/16) change unpredictably at every bar line. He can turn out a passage where seven-against-six melts into six-against-five. He can give us music where the dynamic shaping of a series of pounding chords is both irregular and different in each hand, leading to a superimposition that can make you dizzy. Could you find a two-measure stretch in any of the Estudios rítmicos that doesn’t engage your intellect? Perhaps—but it wouldn’t be easy.

At the same time, though—and this is what makes him such an exceptional composer—he manages to be uncompromisingly knotty while keeping his audience totally engaged. His music is consistently attractive, even for audiences that are usually suspicious of contemporary music (or even music after 1900). Matthew Bengtson and cellist John Haines-Eitzen talk about this in their interview with Robert Schulslaper (and, briefly, Sierra himself) in Fanfare 41:5; I witnessed it myself when Syracuse’s Symphoria performed Fandangos (probably his most oft-performed orchestral work) a few months back, to a tumultuous response. And although I’ve not heard Estudios played in concert, I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t bring an audience to its feet.

How does Sierra bring it off? Unlike Boulez, he’s never severe. Unlike Sorabji, he’s never cluttered, even when simultaneous events compete for your attention and even when it seems (as it sometimes does, given his striking pedal effects) that the whole piano is resonating. Most important, unlike too many modernists to mention, he’s never dogmatic, always ready to shift direction before the musical ideas have a chance to congeal. The opening of the first of the Estudios is exemplary. The first measure presents a six-note figure in sextuplets, played twice, with the hands in unison. Immediately, though, as the composer puts it, “the left hand creates the illusion of slowing down by changing its rhythmic values.” More specifically, while the right hand continues doggedly on its way, the left hand falls out of sync, repeating the figure twice in quintuplets, then in eighth notes, then…. You might think, at first, that you’re in some piece by a Steve Reich acolyte (an impatient one, too, since Reich’s phases don’t usually shift so quickly). But in fact, you’d barely have time to draw that conclusion, since in the 11th measure, the right hand gesture (with the left in unison again) speeds up—at which point we find ourselves in a new musical environment, different in texture, harmonic feel, and rhythmic spirit. The sextuplets—or, more accurately, different sextuplets—return, but again, the context has been transformed. And so on: As in a kaleidoscopic, we recognize recurring ideas, but they’re constantly seen from a new perspective. Consequently, the music is riveting, but it never hypnotizes you into inattention.

But you can’t explain Sierra’s success simply by pointing to the traps he avoids. You also need to point to his specific strengths—in particular (and the title Estudios rítmicos y sonoros gives it away) his brilliant treatment of rhythm and sonority. Sierra has a remarkable ear for color, evident in the sheer sound of his orchestral music, but equally acute when he’s limited to the piano. He certainly takes advantage of its dynamic possibilities, often engaging in rapid shifts, and taking full advantage of both extremes, making liberal use of pppp and ffff (and occasionally calling on ppppp and fffff). He is equally interested in the potentials of the pedals. As for rhythm: the power of the music doesn’t come simply by the inventiveness of the rhythms, measure by measure, but also for the way each piece carries us from beginning to end, not by simple accumulated momentum (as in Bolero), but through a carefully calculated series of swerves and surprises. I’m sure I’ll come to regret this metaphor, but these Etudes are closer in spirit to a roller coaster than a bullet train, and they require (and reward) your attention every bit of the way.

Piezas líricas are clearly the work of the same composer, clearly generated by many of the same musical concerns (especially rhythmic); but the collection is less assertive, more interested in evoking quieter sounds from the piano (the first piece doesn’t even reach mp), especially in its highest range. Much of this music is secretive, slightly troubled—and even when it’s calm, Sierra gives us little reason to believe that the calm will last. There’s only a single stinging gesture in No. 12, near the beginning—but while the rest of the piece is quiet and relatively static, we live under the shadow of that outburst, waiting for a repeat that never comes. It’s a haunting work. As for the Album for the Young, it’s altogether lighter, easier to play (although a few of the pieces offer significant challenges), and more direct in expression, full of delightful, often pictorial touches. I especially appreciated, at the end of “Thunderstorm,” the way Sierra evokes the quiet, distant rumble in the storm’s wake. It’s not easy to write music for children without falling into cuteness or condescension—but Sierra succeeds without a misstep.

Matthew Bengtson, best known for his outstanding Scriabin, certainly has the measure of this music, relishing its timbral play and tossing off its tricky rhythmic gestures with astonishing confidence and clarity. The Estudios sound unfailingly musical, never collapsing into virtuoso clatter as they so easily could, and the Album for the Young has just the right buoyancy. The sound is excellent, as are the notes by the pianist and the composer. A major release.


– Peter J. Rabinowitz in Fanfare (July/Aug 2023)

Read a feature interview article with me on this recording by critic Robert Schulslaper.