Better with Age: Musical Miracles from Italy, France & Spain

Aage Kvalbein - Italian Miracles, a journey into Wine and Music
Aage Kvalbein – Italian Miracles, a journey into Wine and Music

Aage Kvalbein – Italian Miracles, a journey into Wine and Music (Kirkelig Kulturverksted, 1999)

Aage Kvalbein (cello) and Havard Gimse (piano) – French Miracles, a journey into Wine and Music (Kirkelig Kulturverksted, 2000)

Aage Kvalbein – Spanish Miracles, a journey into Wine and Music (Kirkelig Kulturverksted, 2001)

Also mentioned as reference material: Ravel: Bolèro. Rapsodie espagnole. Alborada del gracios. Le Tombeau de Couperin. Valses nobles et sentimentales Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy and Charles Munch (Sony Classics SBK 48 163, 1991); Leonidas Kavakos/Pèter Nagy Maurice Ravel/George Enescu (ECM New Series, 2003); The Rough Guide To Classical Music, 4th Edition (The Penguin Group,2005).

I’ve never been a classical music aficionado even though I have enjoyed the work of a handful of classical composers. I studied classical music to an extent while I was in my teens and I took classes on the history of Western music in college. Recently, I reconnected with classical music for two reasons. One, I have found that the theories behind classical music give me a better view of the
world’s folk music traditions, either by contrast or from sharing similar structure. Two, many world music performers have a background in classical music and some of their arrangements are based upon those studies.

Plus I enjoy thematic music that explores other art forms, such as Spanish composer Enrique Granados who interpreted a set of Francisco Goya’s paintings in his composition Goyescas or the French Impressionist composers such as Claude Debussy whose work complimented the Impressionist painters’ canvases.

I borrowed The Rough Guide To Classical Music, (4th edition), from the library to help me with my research and I have been thoroughly entertained reading biographies of classical music composers and musicians. Of course, the term classical is being used in the broadest sense and includes, everything from medieval church and folk music, to renaissance, baroque, Impressionist, Romantic and experimental periods. The music ranges from abstract, atonal to almost pointlessness to some of the most inspiring melodies ever composed.

Since composers do not live in a vacuum and are influenced by their culture, some composers were encouraged to include folkloric elements in their symphonies, concertos and other work. Spanish composers Manuel de Falla, Enrique Granados and Isaac Albéniz are such composers. Swiss composer Maurice Ravel’s 1924 violin piece, Tzigane-Rapsodie de concert not only is inspired by Gypsy
music, but was first performed by the young Hungarian violinist, Jelly d’ Aranyi. For example take a listen to the dazzling ECM 2003 recording of pianist Pèter Nagy and violinist Leonidas Kavakos performing Ravel’s Tzigane.

The Norwegian label Kirkelig Kulturverksted released a series of delightful classical music compilations, a journey into Wine and Music. The 3 CDs that I’m reviewing are from Italy, France and Spain. All 3 CDs include 19 tracks and feature Norwegian cellist Aage Kvalbein, who along with producer Erik Hillestad orchestrated the series. They chose the songs, the rustic locations where the songs would be recorded as well as, the right wine to go with each of
the songs.

On a side note, I know very little if anything about wine other than it has a palette and a personality. Other than Europeans take wine very seriously and if you want to meet French immigrants in the US, you can hang out in the wine and specialty cheese sections at Whole Foods. The wine and music connection is a new one to me. Certainly you can indulge in this gorgeous music, but practice
moderation with the wine. I prefer the music sans the wine.

Let’s start our journey in Italy, wine not included. IFrench Miracles, a journey into Wine and Musicwas recorded at Castello Banfi in Montalcino in June 1999, spans from the baroque era to contemporary times. The musical ensemble led by cellist Aage Kvalbein,
features Norwegian soprano Elizabeth Norberg-Schultz, Norwegian lute and guitar player Rolf Lislevand, Norwegian pianist Havard Gimse and arranger and accordionist Henning Sommberro, also hailing from Norway.

The composers represented range from Antonio Vivaldi to Ennio Morricone and others. There seems to be few if any folk elements on this disc, but Musetta’s Aria From Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème sung by Norberg-Schultz shouldn’t be missed. This recording is “classic calm. elegant, robust and lively,” like one of the 19 Italian wines described in the liner notes.

>Aage Kvalbein and Havard Gimse - French Miracles, a journey into Wine and Music
>Aage Kvalbein and Havard Gimse – French Miracles, a journey into Wine and Music
The French Miracles recording doesn’t feature any Early Music instruments, but perhaps if I listen closely I might be able to unearth folkloric elements. This CD focuses on a handful of composers from the baroque, Romantic and Impressionist periods with compositions from Claude Debussy and Gabriel Faurè taking up the bulk of space. This set of songs performed by Kvalbein on cello and Havard Bimse on piano was recorded at Domaine de Chevalier in Graves, Bordeaux, France May of 1998, but not released until 2000.

It is a gorgeous recording, but gives little insight into world music from my perspective. Although I did get excited when I saw two tracks by Maurice Ravel, Habanera and Pavane de La Belle au Bois Dormant. Similar to Argentine tango master Astor Piazzolla and Italian composer Nino Rota, Ravel is one of my favorite composers. All three of these 20th century composers feature both frantic and lyrical passages side by side in their work. A listener could change moods in a blink of an eye listening to these composers. Out of the 3, only the tango master Piazzolla is lumped in with world music, although he had links to both classical music and jazz.

According to the liner notes for the Sony Classical disc, Ravel: Bolèro, Rapsodie espagnole (and other titles–SBK 48 163), Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole was inspired by the composer’s version of Spain.

With its folkloristic local color and unconventionally contrastive moods, it conveys that ‘synthetic’ picture of Spain that was later to become a central motif in his work.”

Spanish composer Manuel de Falla who did incorporate folkloric music and dance rhythms into his work, made this comment about Ravel’s Spanish influences.

And how astonished I was at Ravel’s sentient and natural Spanishness. Since I knew very well that the only connection he had to my country was that he was born near the frontier. The riddle however, was quickly solved: Ravel’s Spain was one that he had learned idealized from his mother.”

Also in the liner notes and I mention this because I have heard shades of Maurice Ravel in some world music that I have reviewed, especially with musicians who work with orchestration.

Anyone attempting to trace all the stylistic influences on Ravel’s musical language will ultimately find himself faced by a stroke of musical genius: Although Ravel’s list of published works runs to barely 60 compositions, almost every age is represented there, from Gregorian plainsong to Romanticism, from Renaissance and Baroque to Viennese Classicism and, finally, to Gershwin and
American jazz
.” (Andreas Kluge, liner notes).

Although I haven’t listened to Claude Debussy’s work enough to detect any folkloric or ethnic music influences, there is a passage in the Rough Guide to Classical Music, 4th edition that I find intriguing.

While other French composers such as Chabrier and Chausson responded to Wagnerism by composing their own grand Norse dramas, Debussy looked beyond mainstream Western traditions as a way of expanding the vocabulary of music. A Javanese gamelan performance at the Paris Exposition of 1889 had a profound effect, overwhelming him with elemental beauty of its indeterminate harmonies.”

The Spanish Miracles features both Early Music instruments and includes composers who were inspired by folk elements and included folk dance rhythms in their work. Recorded at Masia Bach, Spain in September of 2000, this collection of songs are performed on piano, cello, organ, baroque guitar, Viennese guitar and theorbo. Again, you will hear the virtuoso work of Norwegian Early Music
performer Rolf Lislevand on lutes.

I especially enjoy this recording because I had not learned about Spanish composers when I studied the history of Western music. This disc includes work by Manuel de Falla, Enrique Granados, Isaac Albéniz, Joaquin Nin (author Anais Nin’s father) and the ever popular, Adagio from Concerto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo (think Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain). Traditional Spanish folk songs
also appear, sprinkled throughout the 19 tracks.

The liner notes talk more about wine and cultivation rather than the composers or the compositions that appear on the compilation. The songs were in fact recorded at a vineyard manor, near Barcelona. But not all the songs were recorded at the vineyard and the music on this disc deserves to be emphasized in the liner notes.

For some of the recordings an organ was needed. In the village of l’Aleixar we found a little church with a charming, typically Spanish organ from 1690.” (L’Eglèsia de Sant Marti de l’Aleixar).

The blend of period instruments with cello and piano is exquisite and the selection of songs flow well into one another. But most impressive is the marriage of Spanish folk elements and classical music sensibility. The best way to describe it is to pull a quote off of the wine list. “Concentrated and sensual, a soft deep and dark, powerful, yet moody” experience. Or take a
listen to Augustin Lara’s Granada. Joaquin Nin’s selections from Seguida Española could be called dark and moody as well. It’s a challenging to piece to listen to, with or without wine.

Three of the composers on this disc, Manuel de Falla, Isaac Albéniz and Enrique Granados all studied with Spanish musicologist and folk song collector Felipe Pedrell and all three composers adopted Spanish folk idioms into their compositions. Again here is a quote from The Rough Guide to Classical Music in reference to Albéniz’ Spanish piano writing.

Pieces like La Vega, the Cantos de España and Suite Española are bursting with national color, evoking the sound of guitars, flamenco rhythms and dances from Sevillana and Corranda.”

Albéniz and Granados are featured several times on the Spanish Miracles recording and the CD ends with an 8 minute track, From the Suite Populares Españolas, (El Paño Moruno, Nana, Polo and Asturiana) by Manuel de Falla. So listeners can hear the Spanish folkloric influences for themselves. And in fact, the Spanish Miracles is my favorite of the three Wine and Music CDs.

So next time you pick up that glass of expensive imported wine, select the proper music to go with it. If you don’t know which music to choose, consult with the knowledgeable folks at theKirkelig Kulturverksted label.

(An added note with just a dash of humor: In the last few weeks I have reviewed Irish drinking songs and selections from Kirkelig Kulturverksted’s Wine and Music series, but I do not drink alcohol. Really, I’m in this for the music. As you know music itself can be intoxicating and full of robust flavors).