David BRUCE (b. 1970)
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1879)
Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115 [35:05]
Julian Bliss (clarinet/bass clarinet)
Carducci String Quartet (Matthew Denton, Michelle Fleming – violins; Eoin Schmidt-Martin – viola; Emma Denton – cello)
rec. Britten Studio, Snape Maltings, Suffolk, 1–3 May 2015
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD448 [58:00]
Why the title Gumboots? David Bruce explains in his booklet note that it is a reference to the tradition of gumboot dancing, which was “born out of the brutal labour conditions in South Africa under Apartheid, in which black miners were chained together and wore Gumboots (Wellington boots) while they worked in the flooded gold mines, because it was cheaper for the owners to supply the boots than to drain the floodwater from the mine. Apparently slapping the boots and chains was used by the workers as a form of communication, which was otherwise banned in the mine, and this later developed into a form of dance”. There is little attempt actually to reproduce the sound of gumboots in Bruce’s work; rather, the concept is used as a springboard to explore the life-enriching role of art under oppression, and indeed of the “rejuvenating power of dance”.
The piece dates from 2008; the fact that it has been recorded now is due to its only having been introduced to the clarinettist Julian Bliss as recently as 2014. Gumboots is in two parts of roughly equal length. To quote Bruce again: “the first is tender and slow-moving, at times ‘yearning’; at times seemingly expressing a kind of tranquillity and inner peace. The second is a complete contrast, consisting of five, ever-more-lively ‘gumboot dances’, often joyful and always vital”. That is a very good description, though I would add that the opening section also conveys, to me at least, a Coplandesque and very appropriate sense of wide open spaces; and also that, in practice, the contrast between the two parts doesn’t sound quite as stark as Bruce implies. This is mainly because the – very strong – last 3½ minutes of the first section come across as something of a transitional passage, in which the string players seem to ‘break free’ from the musings of the clarinet and simultaneously introduce swifter, dance-like elements. That said, the listener is in no doubt that he or she is being taken on a journey from sometimes melancholy introspection to energetic celebration, the precise meaning of which Bruce is happy to leave open.
His idiom is very approachable. He says himself that there are some African musical influences, but these are far from pervasive; certainly there are many passages that are indebted to folk music in a general sense, and others that seem to channel this indebtedness through the filter provided by such twentieth-century masters as, yes, Copland, but also Stravinsky or even Bartok. Occasionally also, there are appropriate hints of jazz.
I found the piece engaging and immensely enjoyable, due no doubt to the virtuosity and palpable commitment of Bliss and the Carducci Quartet. Bliss engagingly describes Bruce’s work as a ‘corker’, and he succeeds in persuading us as listeners both that he truly believes this and that we should share his enthusiasm.
He goes on to say that Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet seemed a “natural choice” as coupling, in that we get “something old and something new; something familiar and great, and something fresh and innovative”. You can see what he means, and certainly the performance of the Brahms that he and the Carduccis give us is a distinguished one: crisp, fresh, vivid, often on the swift side, and conveying, as in the Bruce, an attractive sense that one is sharing in an enjoyable conversation between friends. That said, the recorded competition in this work is immense, and I am not sure that what these performers have to say is really that distinctive. I can confidently predict that no one will be disappointed by this Brahms; but I suspect that I will not be the only listener who regrets that its space on the disc is not occupied by other works by Bruce, or at least by other contemporary works for these or similar forces. That, though, is the only substantive criticism one could make: the Brahms is good and worth hearing, and the Bruce truly is a ‘corker’.