Wednesday 22 June 2016

Brahms and Bruce - music for clarinet and string quartet

David Bruce: Gumboots - Julian Bliss, Carducci Quartet - Signum Classics
David Bruce Gumboots, Johannes Brahms Clarinet Quintet; Julian Bliss, Carducci Quartet; Signum Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 11 2016
Star rating: 4.0

David Bruce's evocative modern classic alongside Brahms' autumnal masterpiece

This new disc from clarinettist Julian Bliss and the Carducci Quartet (Matthew Denton, Michelle Fleming, Eoin Schmidt-Martin, Emma Denton) on Signum Classics pairs two works for clarinet and string quartet; Johannes Brahms classic Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op.115 and Gumboots by the contemporary composer David Bruce. The two works are interestingly complementary not just in regard of style and time period, Bruce's work is written for bass clarinet (doubling clarinet) whilst Brahms' is for a standard clarinet.

Before encountering this disc I had never come across Gumboot Dancing and the title of David Bruce's piece brought a number of associations, all wrong. During the Apartheid era in South Africa it was cheaper for the mine owners to supply the workers with gumboots (Wellington boots) than drain the mines. Forced to work in chains and forbidden to speak the men developed a means of communication by slapping the boots and chains.

Julian Bliss - photo credit Ben Wright
Julian Bliss - photo credit Ben Wright
For David Bruce the appeal was the sense of creating something beautiful and life-enhancing from a circumstance so negative. So the music does not try to evoke Gumboot Dancing as such. Instead the work opens with a quietly evocative and rather movingly melancholy long movement. Introspective and yearning, there is no obvious narrative yet the musicians find a deep meaning in the music. There hints of African musical traditions, for instance in the way Bruce has virtually the same melody played at slightly different times by two instruments at the opening (a technique which reoccurs in the piece in the faster movements). The result though is beautifully evocative rather then being specific. The remaining five short movements are about the same duration in total as the opening movement, these five are all dances. Joyous pieces, each increasingly rumbustious and energetic.

This a lovely piece, and here it receives a fine performance from Bliss and the Carducci Quartet. Bruce wrote the work in 2008 and the recording came about because Julian Bliss was asked to play the piece at a music festival in 2014, a circumstance which led directly to the creation of this recording in 2015.

The performers have decided to pair Bruce's work with Brahms' autumnal classical, one of a group of works Brahms wrote inspired by the clarinet playing of Richard Mühlfeld. Julian Bliss and the Carducci Quartet perform the Brahms with a lovely combination of lyricism and sense of flow, giving it a relaxed autumnal glow (Brahms was nearly 60 when he wrote it and had given up composing). Bliss's clarinet is not over spotlit and there is a nice give and take between the players.

Even the dramatic moments in the first movement have a sense of reflective passion about them. The Adagio is played with a lovely veiled tone; quiet and intense with some rhapsodic clarinet playing, there is a remarkably controlled and sustained intensity to the movement. The Andantino is relaxed and flowing, even the more dramatic middle section. Whilst the final movement, marked Con moto, starts off graceful and not pressured, things do really hot up. The players capture the autumnal elegiac tone of Brahms' work, full of relaxed passion.

David Bruce (born 1970) - Gumboots
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) - Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op.115
Julian Bliss (clarinet)
Carducci Quartet
Recorded 1-3 May 2015, Britten Studio, Snape Maltings, Suffolk
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