"You're interested in traditional music?" asked our local driver. I was in northern Italy with Madagascan band Tarika, in 1998, on the way from the airport to play a concert for Folkest festival. "After the show I can take you somewhere if you like."
So at midnight we were driving along narrow roads up into the Apennine mountains. We drew closer to a small patch of lights on a dark hillside, which revealed itself to be a tiny old village where a celebration was happening. Long tables of food and drinks were lined up on the sloping, cobbled village square. A group of Genoese trallalero singers, facing one another in a tight circle, were creating their extraordinary vocal harmonies. When they paused, a duo of the strident double-reeded piffero and accordion, seated on wooden chairs on a table-top, would strike up in rich, lively dance music.
I’d heard of Stefano Valla and Daniele Scurati, and knew they were leading names in piffero and accordion music of Quattro Province, the ‘four provinces’ of the Apennines – Genoa, Piacenza, Alessandria and Pavia – but this was my first encounter with them.
Well, here they are now, in 2021, in company with two classical musicians - violinist Marcello Fera and cellist Nicola Segatta. Composer Fera describes his first encounter with Valla and Scurati as "an epiphany." The result of their meeting is a set of traditional tunes and songs from Valla and Scurati’s repertoire given splendid arrangements by Fera. It’s a transformation that works beautifully; the quartet, on the face of it a sort of chamber-music group, makes something much bigger in sound, rich and magnificent, the accordion and cello working together like a whole orchestra, topped off by the eloquent violin and the thrilling graininess of the piffero.
The opener, "Alessandrina In Re” is Bach-like in its intricate counterpoint. "Levar Di Tavola," that follows it, is a lyrical piece, full of pauses that capture the spirit of the traditional version, while expanding greatly on it, and developing into a big rhythmic dance.
"Angiolina” is a lilting waltz-time song; all four sing, in strong lead and harmonies – you don’t get that with your usual chamber quartet! "Occhi Neri” is an unaccompanied song, in which the four voices together have all the power and masculine grain of trallaleri.
Mazurkas, indeed 3/4 time, are characteristic of the region’s traditional dance tunes. The delicate "Mazurca Di Borgofornari” evokes an image of elegant, stately couple-dance, ending with violin and cello pizzicato before springing into the surging 3/4 of "Mazurca D’Doro.”
"Alessandrina In La” is a pacey scamper, showcasing Valla’s high skill in tonguing and multiple-tonguing on the piffero. Powerful four-part singing returns in "Valzer Dei Disertori," moving into a swaying instrumental waltz.
"La Neve La Va Con Il Sole," a Valla composition, is a duet, his extended soaring piffero fanfare echoed on the violin. "Marcellina” is a warm singalong, the sort that one imagines stirring a whole village feast to join in, before everyone leaps up from their benches at the tables of food and wine for the swirling dance of "Piana Bella." "Bella Növa," which gives the group its name, opens with sad, dark accordion chords and deep cello, preparing the way for a passionate song for a single voice.
"Polka Di Ernesto” begins with almost Philip Glass-like fast string repetition before bursting into a triumphant 4/4 dance to close an altogether glorious album that brings together on equal terms the heart and grain of traditional music with classical development, to make something magnificent and stirring that celebrates the great skills, powers and strength of both.