BRUCE Gumboots BRAHMS Clarinet Quintet
Here’s a double delight. First, an engaging new work which deserves a place in the chamber repertory; second, a passionate account of Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet which can hold its head high against starrier competition. British clarinettist Julian Bliss is forging a notable international career and is joined here by the Carducci Quartet, whose Shostakovich last year (in concert and on disc) impressed me hugely.
Gumboots is by David Bruce (whose terrific new opera Nothing premiered at Glyndebourne recently). Its title derives from gumboot dancing – a type of secret communication developed by black miners in Apartheid South Africa, where the slapping of boots and chains in the flooded mines turned into a sort of dance. A long, tranquil opening movement gives way to five short, incredibly catchy dances. Doubling bass clarinet, Bliss is in his element, each dance strongly rhythmic, with a distinctive folk feel. The performers’ sense of fun is palpable.
In the Brahms, Bliss’s tone isn’t quite as opulent as Andreas Ottensamer or Martin Fröst on their recent recordings but it’s firm and rounded, with a fruity chalumeau register. Where Ottensamer and Fröst team up with celebrity string partners (Janine Jansen, Leonidas Kavakos, Antoine Tamestit and Maxim Rysanov among the line-ups), Bliss benefits from a string quartet used to playing together day in, day out. There is an abrasive, almost wiry quality to the Carducci Quartet’s playing which I wasn’t sure would be well suited to Brahms, but I enjoyed their drive and commitment enormously. They inject a much greater sense of purpose into their account, especially in the Adagio, which can turn into a wallow elsewhere. Bliss relishes the Hungarian folk-inspired riffs here (tr 8, 2'59"), bringing an improvisatory feel to his playing. There’s vivacious joy in the Presto non assai section of the third movement and the finale maintains momentum – in every movement, Bliss and the Carduccis are swifter than Ottensamer and Fröst. For forthright Brahms and a toe-tapping new work, this is strongly recommended.