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ClassicsOnline Home » BRETON, T.: Piano Trio in E major / 4 Spanish Pieces (LOM Piano Trio)
Tomás Bretón, a native of Salamanca, rose from relatively humble circumstances to become a leading figure in Spanish music, director of the Madrid Conservatory and an important conductor. Although Bretón is now remembered chiefly for his zarzuelas and operas, his chamber music has been unaccountably neglected. The brilliant Four Spanish Pieces, which enjoyed widespread popularity at the beginning of the twentieth century, convey the distinctive Spanish character present throughout the composer’s work. By contrast, the Trio for piano, violin and cello is a more serious and original work in which Spanish melodies are introduced with considerable subtlety.
By Glyn Pursglove
By Phillip Scott
By Gary Higginson
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.
Tomás Bretón (1850-1923)
Four Spanish Pieces • Piano Trio in E major
Bretón’s musical gifts appeared when he was very young. He began his studies in Salamanca, his native city, and at the age of sixteen he moved to Madrid, where he had to earn his living by playing in cafés and theatre houses, while continuing his education at the Conservatoire. He studied with Emilio Arrieta, and won the Composition Award in 1874. Some years later, under the patronage of King Alfonso XII and the Counts of Morphy, he gained a scholarship to study in Rome.
Bretón’s stay in Rome exerted a positive influence and, as also happened to his friend, the Spanish composer Ruperto Chapí, it stimulated him to incorporate into his music the new great European forms, while taking great interest in the promotion of nationalist music.
On his return to Madrid, Bretón was appointed Orchestral Director of the Teatro Real and the Unión Artístico Musical. In 1901 he took up the post of Professor of Composition at the Conservatoire, becoming Principal two years later. His students included such great musicians as Manuel de Falla and Pablo Casals.
From his position within the Spanish musical circles, he laboured hard to re-energise the world of Spanish music and took particular pains to introduce the idea of an original, nationalistic opera, inspired by Spanish folk melodies. In that vein he wrote various lyrical works and pieces of chamber music, which were however, ironically, criticized for not being Spanish enough; some of his operas, such as The Lovers of Teruel and Garin were even considered Wagnerian.
Bretón composed numerous zarzuelas, several operas and a series of symphonic works. His zarzuela, La Verbena de la Paloma (The Feast of the Dove) is one of the classic models of the genéro chico (“small genre” which refers to the short zarzuelas lasting one hour or less) and offers a unique musical portrait of Madrid at the end of the nineteenth century.
Although his fame is mainly based on his lyrical works, Bretón’s chamber music is remarkable, with a harmonic approach quite audacious for its period. He composed three string quartets, one piano quintet, one wind sextet, and also the four pieces for trio and the Trio in E major that we present here.
The Four Spanish Pieces and the Trio for piano, violin and cello in E major (1887) are two works representative of Bretón’s compositional spectrum. The four pieces, Danse Orientale, Scherzo Andalou, Boléro and Polo Gitano, are clear examples of the distinctive Spanish character present in most of the composer’s work. These pieces were very popular at the beginning of the twentieth century but are now almost forgotten.
In the Trio in E major one can appreciate Bretón’s apparent attempt to leave aside the light atmosphere of his zarzuelas, and write instead in a manner closer to the German or Italian style. A deeper study of the language of this Trio, however, enables us to observe how the composer subtly introduces his Spanish melodies even in this work. The effect produced by this fusion of such different influences, is one of great originality.
English translation by Graham Wade
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