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Tomás BRETÓN (1850-1923)
String Quartet No. 3 in E minor [28:02]
String Quartet No. 1 in D major [32:40]
Bretón String Quartet
rec. 2013, Musicstry Studios, Boadilla del Monte, Madrid, Spain
NAXOS 8.573037 [60:49]

A native of Salamanca, the Spanish composer Tomás Bretón, might be a name new to many, except for die-hard fans of Spanish music and especially Spanish opera and Zarzuela - which, contrary to popular belief, does not refer to Spanish operetta, but to the name of the theatre where many of the works were originally performed. Many Zarzuela songs are on the lighter side, but some are seriously heavy-going. However, Bretón was also a composer of instrumental music, and is regarded as Spain’s leading symphonist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, having composed three symphonies between 1872 and 1905, which have been released on the Verso label (VRS2117). He also went on to compose chamber music, including three string quartets and a lovely piano trio in E, which has been recorded by the LOM Piano Trio and was also released by Naxos in 2008.

The disc opens with the String Quartet No. 3 in E minor, which, while hardly ground-breaking, is very attractive and interesting. Composed in 1909 and premiered the following year, it was not performed again until three years later and owing to the fact that it was never published, it seems that this recording is its next performance, although of a newly edited and published edition. The music leans towards Mendelssohn, especially in the first movement, although there is also a Spanish element. The slow second movement contains some nice passage work and I particularly like the way that the violins play a lilting tune whilst the viola plays pizzicato and the cello offers a sort of ground bass to anchor the music. The third movement Allegro no mucho opens with music overtly Spanish in flavour, and is seemingly arranged by the composer for a piano trio. We stay in Spain for the final movement Allegro deciso, with its dance like episodes and an interpretation of the “bolero rhythm” - wonderful. Although this quartet is Spanish in flavour, it is no mere pastiche of traditional tunes; rather, we see Bretón developing his own thematic material on the rhythms and style of his homeland to produce music that is both Spanish but at the same time original.

The String Quartet No. 1 in D major was the only one of the quartets to be published in the composer’s lifetime. Composed in 1904 and performed the following year, it was published on the back of this successful premiere and dedicated to Queen Maria Christina. Indeed, this is the second recording of the quartet; the first appeared on the HNH label, with the New Budapest Quartet setting it down for Marco Polo (8.223745) and coupling it with the Piano Trio. The sound of the earlier, 1991 recording sounds a little old now, and indeed the performance is less detailed and committed than that of the Bretón String Quartet. This work is less attractive than the Third Quartet and is quite traditional in style, harking back to the late classical period and Schubert. It is still an interesting work, however; I especially like the passionate slow movement, while the spirited Scherzo is followed by a multi-faceted final that begins slowly before entering a nice fugal section. The tempo then drops to Moderato, before the movement concludes with a spirited dash to the end.

This is a wonderful disc of unusual string quartets, apparently the first in a two-disc series; on this evidence, I look forward to the second volume. The Third Quartet is the stronger and more interesting of the two quartets here, but the first still has its interesting features. The performance by the Bretón String Quartet is first rate; they are certainly more committed the music of the composer they are named after than the New Budapest Quartet, making this an engaging performance. Excellent recorded sound and a good accompanying essay make this disc a real bargain.

Stuart Sillitoe



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