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Glyn Pursglove
MusicWeb International, July 2009

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.

Phillip Scott
Fanfare, January 2009

As you would expect from a composer of popular zarzuelas (La verbena de paloma being the best known), this is tuneful music with a generally sunny outlook.

The Trio (1887) is an extended work in four movements, to some extent utilizing themes with a Spanish inflection, but not neglecting counterpoint or thematic development. The first movement feels a little drawn out at 12 minutes, but overall this is music of substance and point. I especially enjoyed the plaintive slow movement and the spirited finale.

The Four Spanish Pieces of 1911 are lighter, with cleaner textures and a stylistic basis in dance. The titles explain: “Danza oriental,” “Scherzo andaluz,” “Bolero,” and “Polo gitano.” Subtle use is made of string pizzicato in the latter. More straightforward than Turina’s similar chamber works, and a less earthy evocation of Spain than that of Albéniz or even Carmen, this neglected set of pieces is a delightful discovery.

The LOM Trio—the name apparently derives from the first letter of the three last names—includes the excellent pianist Daniel Ligorio, who has recorded Falla’s complete piano music for this label. The other musicians are violinist Joan Orpella and cellist José Mor. All play with poise and energy when required. I wish they had been recorded with a little more space between the instruments, as some of the thicker textures in Bretón’s Piano Trio suffer as a result. Recommended nevertheless, especially for the Four Spanish Pieces.

Gary Higginson
MusicWeb International, November 2008

The attractive picture on the CD’s cover is of Salamanca Cathedral. Why Salamanca? Well that was where Bretón was born in somewhat humble circumstances. However ‘the boy done good’ you might say. At a very young age he trained in Madrid and later became a significant figure there as director of the Conservatoire and as a leading light in the composition of zarzuela, the hour long entertainment based on Spanish stories and culture. He wrote orchestral works, including three symphonies and much chamber music. It seems odd that little of his music has been recorded although I seem to recall a few pieces in the early 1990s on Marco Polo. He is almost entirely unknown outside Spain.

Joan Orpella who plays violin in the LOM Piano Trio writes in his rather brief booklet notes that Bretón “labored hard to re-energize the world of Spanish music and took particular pains to introduce the idea of an original, nationalistic opera”. He goes on to say that “ironically, he was criticized for not being Spanish enough”. Writing about the Piano Trio Orpella comments that Bretón attempts to “leave aside the light atmosphere of the zarzuelas, and write instead in a manner closer to the German or Italian style”. Bretón had studied in Rome where he gained a scholarship; consequently he can be seen as truly international composer.

I find the Piano Trio, although immensely charming and beautifully composed, somewhat disappointing. I suspect that it was the expectation that we might have something a little more Spanish in flavour. Instead I found myself finding its opening almost classical. Its slow movement seems influenced by Saint-Saëns whom Bretón much admired, its finale being Dvořákian. Only its Scherzo seeming a little more original. Yet there is more if one digs a little deeper. There are some quite interesting key shifts and Spanish melodies have indeed been subtly introduced. I noted a distinctly Spanish feel to the Scherzo and trio (is it in 6/8 or 3/4?). These have been intermixed with the styles of the composers mentioned above so that an originality is created. A sense of real enjoyment propels the listener forward, although I do find the first movement a little prolix. Amongst the work’s especial attractions would be the opening cello cantilena to the second movement, answered by the violin and then in conversation with it.

The LOM Piano Trio seems in very good form and obviously enjoys the music. The recording is beautifully balanced and realistic. There are a couple of photos of them in the booklet and we are told that they recorded a disc completely devoted to Shostakovich in 2007 but I can find no other reference of it.

The other work here is even more attractive. The ‘Cuatro piezas españolas’ divides up as follows. Number 1 is entitled ‘Danza Oriental’. Its opening melody on the piano and then cello is certainly searching for something ‘oriental’ but there is little sense in this performance of a dance. The ‘Scherzo Andalusia’ hits the Spanish mark which Bretón has exhorted his own pupils to explore. It comes as no surprise that Manual de Falla was one of those pupils but by 1911 the teacher had learned more than a little from the pupil. Third comes a ‘Bolero’. A steady dance in ¾ time - nothing like Ravel, by the way. Bolero is a word which covers many styles of Spanish dance and song. Bretón’s version has a contrasting central section in the major key. I instantly fell in love with the last movement ‘Polo Gitano’ where de Falla and Andalucian folk music seem to be so close. The long opening violin note evokes the Flamenco singer as she starts her incantation, the piano enhancing the effect with its moto perpetuo bounding rhythm. Sadly, the movement appears too short and one is left wanting more. Surely however this is the idiom Bretón was aiming at.

This is obviously not an earth-shattering release but it is an extremely civilized one. I shall certainly try to investigate more of Tomas Bretón’s music.

Andrew Lamb
Gramophone, November 2008

Bretón’s countrymen offer a delightful taster of the Spaniard’s chamber works

 The reputation of Tomás Bretón (1850-1823) has survived largely through the enduring popularity in Spain of his opera La Dolores and zarzuela La verbena de la Paloma. However, he produced not only a wider range of works but also ones less deeply immersed in Spanish influences. His Piano Trio in E major is a prime example of his attempts to enter the mainstream of European classicism, its flavor as much Viennese or French as anything. We have had the work on CD before, in a performance by Hungarian artists for Marco Polo (no longer available), coupled with the String Quartet in D major.

The Hungarians approached the work with the earnest application of performers perhaps less intimately familiar with the music, by comparison with which the LOM Piano Trio of native Spaniards seem altogether more deeply inside it. Their allegro is less hard-driven, their andante more natural, and the playing altogether con amore. The recorded sound, too, is more rounded, and the deliciously Schubertian bounce to the piano-playing gives the beautiful andante second movement an especially ravishing effect.

The coupling is a collection of four Spanish Pieces that sets the nationalist Bretón alongside the internationalist of the Piano trio. This is superior light music, from which Ataúlfo Argenta recorded two movements orchestrally in the 1950s…this inexpensive newcomer offers an utterly delightful taster of what he has to offer.

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, October 2008

His 1887 Piano Trio was written when he was thirty-seven. It has a certain Mendelssohnian lightness throughout. The Spanish qualities that are announced in the footnotes sound to me rather muted—or so well integrated into the fabric of the writing as to be absorbed into the mid century bloodstream. A reference point is probably Schumann or Mendelssohn’s Op. 66 trio—rather more than the Op. 47 but both are relevant precursors to Bretón’s work. The themes are deft and buoyant, sometimes memorably so, with the piano maintaining a primus inter pares role throughout. Perhaps the Spanish elements are most audible in the second movement where the vivacity of the rhythm and dance themes is idiomatic. In the third movement the very Mendelssohnian piano chording is ripe and fulsome, the stirring chorale-like theme definitely reminiscent of the Op. 66 trio. The frolicsome finale seals a good performance of a work that should be given a hearing from time to time. A previous recording on Marco Polo 8.223745 by members of the New Budapest Quartet and pianist György Oravecz was rather more tensile and hard driven than this one—and was coupled with the composer’s String Quartet in D major.

The coupling for this Naxos is altogether different—the Cuatro piezas españolas of 1913. These are rather more characteristic and fragrant Iberian pieces; Danza Oriental, Scherzo Andaluz, Bolero and Polo Gitano… The first sways gently and evocatively in the breeze whilst the allure of the second lies in its vibrant violin lines and the vigour of its conception. The Bolero is light hearted and great fun. If one thinks of Bretón’s music it’s probably these Four Pieces, rather than the Trio, that will strike the more resonant chord for their sure if sometimes light Spanish imagery.

The sleeve-notes are perhaps a little parsimonious. As for the performances they’re not quite infallible but they are energetic and generous, as well as being sensitively shaped and very well recorded. I enjoyed them very much, as I did this wholesome and much needed addition to the small Bretón discography.

Giv Confield
The New Recordings, Cliffs Classics, September 2008

As a child, Breton had studied piano, violin and composition and eventually rose to become director of the Madrid Conservatory and a leading figure in Spanish music. He is remembered mainly for the popular Zarzuelas he composed, but his fine symphonies, tone poems and chamber music are almost forgotten. The extensive first movement of his large-scale Piano Trio of 1887 is notable for its near-Brahmsian intensity. The remaining movements reveal little of the composer's ethnicity - quite the opposite being the case of the delightful Four Spanish Pieces of nearly a quarter century later. The performers (Daniel Ligorio, piano, Joan Orpella, violin and Jose Mor, cello) adopted the initials of their surnames for their Trio, and a fine one it is indeed. Both works are rendered idiomatically. The cover boasts a particulalry attractive photo of the Salamanca Cathedral.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, August 2008

Born in Spain in 1850, Tomas Breton became one of the father figures in Spanish music, and as Professor of Composition at the Conservatoire he had among his pupils Manuel de Falla and Pablo Casals. His own musical education took him to study in Rome, and, as this present disc shows, he became very influenced by mainstream European composing, particularly Germanic filtered through Italian ears. The Piano Trio dates from 1887, and in every way is a beautifully crafted score owing something to Brahms and Schumann. While the piano does have the major thematic material, Breton composes for the trio rather than having the strings as a decorative element. Try the happy third movement (track 3) or the rather quirky rhythm of the finale. In sum this could be counted among the most attractive Piano Trios composed in the late 19th century. Breton was in later life often criticised for his lack of a Spanish element to his works, the brilliant Four Spanish Pieces being his riposte. They were to enjoy widespread popularity at the beginning of the twentieth century, though now seldom heard. Even here the Spanish element misses the populist view of Spain, the dances refined rather than boisterous. The disc is played by the LOM Piano Trio, a Spanish based ensemble that dates from 2001. They are a precisely balanced ensemble, the strings true of intonation, the rapport in terms of tempo never in question. Very good studio sound, nicely dried out to keep perfect clarity of articulation. Little known music which I ardently commend to you.

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