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Tomás BRETÓN (1850-1923)
Piano Trio in E major (1887) [34:42]
Cuatro piezas españolas (1913) [18:44]
LOM Piano Trio (Joan Orpella (violin); José Mor (cello); Daniel Ligorio (piano)) .
rec. Auditorium Paper de Música, Capellades, Barcelona, November 2006 (Cuatro piezas) and April 2007 (Trio).
NAXOS 8.570713 [53:26]
Experience Classicsonline

Tomás Bretón y Hernández was born in Salamanca, the son of a struggling baker, who died when Tomás was only two. Despite the family’s difficult circumstances, Tomás was able to enrol as a student - aged 8 - at the Escuela de Nobles y Bellas Artes in Salamanca. His natural musical gifts, and sheer hard work, meant that by the age of ten he was able to make a contribution to the family finances by working as a violinist. When he, his older brother and his mother moved to Madrid he continued to work in theatres and restaurants to pay for his studies (in violin and composition) at the Madrid Conservatory. An outstanding student - he graduated with the highest honours in 1872 - he was able to study in both Roma and Vienna and began to make his way as a composer of zarzuela and opera. In the ten or eleven years after 1875 he wrote some ten works for the theatre, including La Dolores (in its 1892 version a one-act zarzuela, revised as a full-fledged opera three years later) and, most famously, La verbena de la Paloma (1894), one of the most enduringly attractive works in the zarzuela tradition. Such lasting reputation as Breton has acquired has derived from his theatrical works.

But he made other significant contributions to the renewal of Spanish music. As director of, in turn, the Unión Artistico-Musical and the Sociedad de Conciertos, he did much to promote performances of new works by Spanish composers and to introduce significant foreign works to Spain. From 1901 he was Professor of Composition at the Madrid Conservatory where, only two years later he became Principal and was a figure of real importance in the development of Spanish music in the early years of the twentieth century (well discussed in Victor Sánchez, Tomás Bretón. Un músico de la Restauración, Madrid: 2002).

There are, then, good historical reasons for paying attention to Bretón’s music. But - happily - there are also more exciting reasons for doing so. Quite a lot of it is rather good and still seriously neglected. While his zarzuelas have not gone unnoticed or unadmired, his works in other forms is too little known. These include three symphonies, a series of symphonic poems, songs - and chamber works. (His String Quartet in D major (c.1910) is particularly fine, a personal and ‘Spanish’ development of the Viennese tradition).

On the present well-recorded CD we are offered two compositions for piano trio. The earlier of the two is also the more substantial. Written in 1887 (and first published in London a few years later) the Piano Trio owes much to French examples - perhaps particularly that of Saint-Saëns - in its rich harmonic language (though Brahms is in the mixture too), but it also subtly signals its Spanish origins in places, noticeably in the lyrical andante, where Spanish inflections play an important role in creating an air of elegant melancholy. The third movement (allegro molto) is full of sparkling rhythms and the use of pizzicato strings makes for some striking effects. In the final allegro the rhythmic accents are again strongly pronounced and the writing demonstrates a sensitive ear for changes of timbre and texture. While it would be wrong to claim that this is a neglected masterpiece, it certainly rewards attentive listening - at least as fully as do more than a few better-known works.

The Cuatro piezas españolas carry the titles ‘Danza Oriental’, ‘Scherzo Andaluz’, ‘Bolero’ and ‘Polo Gitano’. The first is both graceful and dignified, its dancing rhythms dignified in their well-shaped phrases; the ‘Scherzo Andaluz’ is initially full of energy, the interplay of the instruments well-judged and the imitative patterns interesting, with some more reflective passages attractively setting off the surrounding vitality. The ‘Bolero’ has an elegant charm which is entirely decorous and polite, while ‘Polo Gitano’ is a similarly decorous evocation of earthier folk idioms. All four pieces offer, within the idiom of a kind of superior salon music, a more obviously nationalistic Bretón than we hear in the Piano Trio. Whether the slighter music of the Cuatro piezas españolas or the more ambitious writing of the Trio is preferred may be no more than a subjective choice (or a product of the passing mood). Both have their attractions and both show what an interesting figure Bretón was.

Glyn Pursglove

see also reviews by Gary Higginson and Jonathan Woolf


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