TOMÁS BRETÓN – A Spanish Romantic

Spanish Romantic composer Tomás Bretón [1850–1923] wrote three string quartets. These were written in 1904, 1907 and 1909, quite late really. I would like to quote from the CD booklet about the state of Spanish music at that time:

At this key moment of the modern history of the string quartet in Spain, composers had to decide on an aesthetic approach to the genre: they had to choose which route to follow, in order to create chamber music that was – to borrow from the expression of a critic of the day – ‘written in Spanish.’ While all kinds of technical resources were employed, three essential directions emerged.

Some composers (such as Chapi, Usandizag and Turina) focussed on nationalism, drawing on Spanish folk tradition. Others adopted an up-to-date international idiom (Campo, Isasi). Finally Breton and others like him remained faithful to the historic roots of the genre, producing works along the same lines as those written by the great German masters of years gone by.

By the way, if anyone has a copy of the Campo quartets, by the Brodsky Quartet, could they please contact me. I should love to hear them, but they are unobtainable.

The First quartet is in four movements and the work opens in an allegro tempo. Notwithstanding the above quotation, the introduction is a bright passage of striking, optimistic, even joyful voicings. The violins make for a gentle melodic passage, with a terrific cello part. To me the music doesn’t sound Spanish but rather, classic European Romanticism. The tempo begins to disintegrate and there are several pauses, which allow for measured conversational interludes. A revisiting of the opening theme reinforces how beautiful this music is. Now a change comes with a jazz style pizzicato cello underpinning some further fine melodies and there is degree of call and response here. A strongly rhythmic, closely harmonised passage is very striking indeed. The basic optimistic nature of the movement continues to the end, with occasional forays into some densely harmonised passages, leading to a final flourish.

The next movement, marked andante has a solo cello wistfully lamenting with a cello accompaniment as further instruments slowly join in. The two violins exchange sombre phrases before moving into a minor key passage, at tempo. The music is strong now with violin lines emerging out of this strength. This is only brief and the texture drops back to two violins expressing over intermittent ensemble assertions, creating a serious mood. It is also somewhat stately, in a Classical manner. This is a very controlled movement, with very little sense of busyness. It is only near the end that the composer lets down his guard and produces some fine harmonised melodic passages that really speak to me. Finally, the music moves to a haunting, faded ending – such a beautiful sound.

The third movement, marked scherzo is an energised romp. The texture is still relatively sparse, but there is plenty of melodic development and harmonisation. This is the most sprightly music heard thus far, although there are several incursions into a minor tonality. I don’t really know Spanish music, only those several composers that I have discussed in the past, but I don’t hear anything that strikes me as being inherently Spanish, in fact, quite the opposite.

Surprisingly, the final movement begins without a pause and moves straight in to some Beethoven sounding strong chords, before a sustained harmony allows a violin to express that which I believe could be termed Spanish. The premise of this music is a solo violin musing thoughtfully over and ever changing ensemble background. It seems the music wants to move forward and it eventually does. A lilting solo violin is joined by a second for a short section, before the ensemble joins the passage. This is a very controlled section, although it still features plenty of melodic development and action. Slowly the music becomes more expansive, though not loud, in fact at times the volume is quite low. It always returns however and these many rises and falls are quite attractive. Long, complex interweaving violin lines now increase the intensity but as the composer nears the end, quite a romp develops and some powerful chords conclude the work

I love the fact that one can be moved so much by music written well over 100 years ago.

By the way, for some unknown reason (to me), hundreds of people viewed the Darius Milhaud First quartet last month. I have no idea why, and I can’t find any links to it on the internet. It is a marvellous piece.

The review CD, Breton: String Quartets 1 & 3 performed by the Bretón String Quartet on the Naxos label, being a new release, is freely available.

There are several quartets on Spotify, earsense and YouTube.

Listenability: Music that doesn’t sound of its time, or possibly of any time – charming works.


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