Cervetti’s “Triptych Celebration” Powerful, Moving

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CERVETTI: Concerto for Trumpet, Strings & Timpani.* Piano Quintet – Toward the Abyss.+ The Hay Wain, for Virtual Orchestra# / *Ondřej Jurčeka, trumpeter; *Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra; *Petr Vronský, conductor; +Karolina Rojahn, pianist; +Omar Chen Guey, Rohan Gregorym violinists; +Peter Sulski, violist; +Jacques Wood, cellist; #Sergio Cervetti, electronics / Navona NV6099

Sergio Cervetti (1940 – ) is a Uruguayan-born American composer who has worked extensively in stage, dance, theater and film music. He came to the U.S. in 1962 to study composition, and was lucky enough to work under Ernst Krenek and graduate from the Peabody Conservatory. He first attracted attention at the 1966 Caracas Music Festival, winning the chamber music prize. He considers himself to be a “traditionalist as well as an innovator.”


Sergio Cervetti

All I can say is that his music is extraordinarily interesting as well as individual. Although he borrows techniques from several different modern schools, his scores sound like no one else’s, yet they make such an impression on the listener that he or she never forgets them. The late jazz composer Alonzo Levister (see my tribute to him here) used to tell me that a great piece of music “has to have a dramatic opening, something that captures you immediately,” and this is what Cervetti’s Concerto for Trumpet, Strings and Timpani (1973) does. The trumpet actually dominates this score, playing in the upper mid-range and pretty much staying there with fairly simple but dramatic themes and variants of them, while the rest of the orchestra “plays around”him, eventually coalescing with the trumpet to create a swirling mélange of sound. Curiously, though Cervetti’s music is not jazz-influenced at all, I kept thinking of some of Levister’s scores, written for smaller forces yet having the same kind of layout and impact. In the notes, Cervetti tells us that his “French Waldensian grandfather, Amadeo, used to sit me on his lap and read to me in French portions of the Book of Revelation. These images terrified me…[yet] many years later I decided to write a work for trumpet and revisit those cherished moments with my beloved grandfather.” A strange fusion, then, of pleasure and terror!

This is followed by his Piano Quintet, subtitled “Toward the Abyss,” from 2015. This, Cervetti tells us, was influenced by “my favorite collection of poems, Les Fleurs du Mal written by Charles Baudelaire, specifically the seventh poem. Le Voyage.” This poem concerns one’s diving into the abyss, proclaiming, “heaven or hell, what does it matter?” The first movement is a very edgy, almost Gothic piece in B minor, with the strings playing nervous tremolos and harsh pizzicatos around an unsettled-sounding piano line, played almost completely by the right hand (occasional staccato chords come and go from the right hand) and much of it in the upper third of the keyboard. This is absolutely terrific music, although the composer describes this movement as “mischievous”! The second movement is a moto perpetuo of extraordinary proportions and emotion in the same key. At about the 4:30 mark, the cello is pitched in such a way that it almost sounds like a tenor saxophone…don’t ask me how he managed to do this! The third movement, titled “To Discover Something New in the Depths of the Unknown,” follows in much the same vein as the second. This is not a Piano Quintet that has much repose or restfulness in it. Here, Cervetti almost seems to be writing an extended set of variations on the principal motifs of the second movement, bringing it to an even edgier emotional precipice, although at 2:40 we suddenly and surprisingly slow the tempo and lighten the mood a bit with a high-lying, lyrical melodic passage that is worked around for some time. After a return to edginess, we quiet down again around 6:20, reaching a surprisingly lovely and memorable melody.

The CD ends with the four-part “virtual orchestra” piece The Hay Wain (1987), inspired by the triptych of paintings by Hieronymus Bosch portraying humans dallying in the false pleasures of Earth and ignoring the call of heaven. It seems obvious that, at least in these three works, deep religious beliefs underpin a great deal of Cervetti’s musical inspiration. This is the only work that was previously released on CD, on the Periodic Music label (PE-1631) by Ron Goldberg, who founded the label solely to issue electronic music. Cervetti here emphasizes the darker, more sinister timbres of his electronic orchestra, utilizing quite a bit of low grumbles and jangling, metallic sounds to complement the dark organ-like sounds. Says Cervetti:

In The Hay Wain I have attempted to render the symbolic aspects of Bosch’s mystical representation of temptation and perdition. The accumulation of riches to which Man sacrifices his spiritual well-being, and the fleeting pleasures of the flesh are masterfully emblazoned by Bosch on The Haywain’s three panels. Art historians have observed that they reveal “the mad progress of Mankind from the Garden of Eden to Hell.”  Nothing short of that cataclysmic assessment could be more appropriate for Bosch’s artistic observation of 16th century life in his Haywain that parallels the lunacy of these troubling times of the early 21st Century.

Needless to say, the music is extraordinarily dark and apocalyptic; yet oddly enough, this is one of Bosch’s less grotesque paintings. Only in the third and last panel does he bring out the darkness and menace of damned souls going to hell. Nonetheless, Cervetti does another remarkable job composing music that is original, moving and striking. Each movement seems comprised of certain short motives or cells which he then works on, embellishing them rhythmically and texturally while making them eventually coalesce.Warning: this is NOT the kind of piece you’ll want to listen to on a dark night, particularly if you’re in a bad or foul mood. It’s not “music for your body, mind and spirit” from your local snoresville classical radio station.


“The Hay Wain” by Hieronymus Bosch

This is the kind of album that critics like myself are always hoping for but seldom get, a strong, original voice creating music of tremendous power and originality. This one is also going into my Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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