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CD Reviews

Music Library Reviews:Tomás Bretón’s Andalusian Scenes

In this series, Classical 91.7's music librarian Chris Hathaway reviews new additions to our ever-growing CD library. This month, Chris reviews Tomás Bretón’s Andalusian Scenes, as performed by the Orquestra de la Comunidad de Madrid, under the direction of Miguel Roa.


Tomás Bretón: Escenas andaluzas (Andalusian Scenes); En la Alhambra (symphonic poem); Preludes to Guzmán el bueno, La Dolores, Garin and Los amantes de Teruel.   Miguel Roa conducting Orquestra de la Comunidad de Madrid.   (Naxos 8.572076).

Tomás Bretón, who died in 1923 at 72, now largely forgotten but a highly respected and influential figure in the musical world in the late nineteenth century, is handsomely served by Miguel Roa and the Comunidad de Madrid orchestra in this newly released recording from Naxos. Its centerpiece is the large-scale dance suite Escenas andaluzas. This composition dates from the mid-1890s, and is distinctively different from what composers in most other parts of Europe were doing at the time.  The 64-year-old Roa — primarily an opera conductor, who has worked in Italy and in the U.S. — is solidly committed to this passionate advocate of Spanish nationalism in music, and the orchestra responds accordingly.  The recording is superb and clearly focused, and the subtle yet effective use of the bass drum is very well captured.  All the music, including En la Alhambra — with very prominent use of the harp and various woodwind solos and groupings at the beginning, and a slight touch of impressionism — is dance-influenced.

Tomás Bretón was primarily a conductor, from 1885 working with the Sociedad de Conciertos, then Madrid’s most prominent orchestra. He was also associated with the Madrid Symphony and Philharmonic Orchestras.  He has a catalogue of over 120 works, including nine operas and over fifty zarzuelas (operettas) and a number of orchestral and chamber pieces.  He began as a violinist, and his quest to develop a style of Spanish national opera really goes back to his teen years, when at fifteen he was offered a job with a light-opera company. He added the Madrid Conservatory, of which he later was to become director, to his activities, eventually graduating with highest honors — at 21 — in 1872.  He impressed the conservatory’s director by finishing three demanding courses in harmony within a span of only five months.

Like his English contemporary Arthur Sullivan, Bretón emphatically did not care to be known as a light opera composer, despite his resounding success in that field. In 1901 he became Professor of Composition at the Madrid Conservatory (where Mañuel de Falla and Pablo Casals were among his students).  He became director of the Conservatory in 1903.  During that time, he also held several posts as an operatic conductor.  His best-known light opera is La verbena de la Paloma, which is only one aspect of a very wide-ranging career. Ironically, some of his later chamber works were considered not Spanish enough. The opera The Loves of Teruel (1889 — the overture to which is on the CD) was blasted as “Wagnerian” by contemporary critics.  The orchestral prelude borrows several themes and bits of episodic material from the opera.

All of the music on this disc has a distinctively “light music” feel, and is colorfully and adroitly orchestrated. Bretón’s nationalistic tendencies are clearly evident.  Naxos, which explores areas of the repertory not usually traversed by most companies, has also brought out some recordings of Bretón’s chamber music of his later years.