Review: Danish String Quartet with Mark Simpson

First published in The Herald on 23 September, 2013

Danish String Quartet with Mark Simpson
St Mary’s Church, Whitekirk

There’s a passage in the slow movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet that gets me every time: just a brief sequence of downward-shifting suspended harmonies, crunchy and somehow timeless. I’ve never heard it more beautifully done than in this performance by the Danish String Quartet and clarinettist Mark Simpson. The upper strings were muted and nutty-warm, the cello pulsated richly, and Simpson’s honeyed tone wove weightlessly in amongst them. When the main theme finally returned it was carried on a mellow whisper (and, incidentally, a single vast breath on Simpson’s part – no small feat).

There were many similarly wonderful moments during this afternoon recital. The Danes are a striking bunch, full of character but never overly demonstrative. That the violinists take turns to lead indicates how much of an ensemble mentality is at play here – they listen and respond to each other with perfect Scandinavian courtesy. Their sound is warm and woody: clean, sturdy, supple and rough grained, it really blossomed in Whitekirk’s petite 12th century church.

The quartet opened with a performance of Haydn’s quartet in F minor, Op 20 no 5, that was alert and uncluttered. There was quiet turmoil in the opening movement, a flash of muscle in the chunky minuet, gentle lilt in the Adagio and a finale that built from eerie, vibrato-less fragments to a fiery close. The Mozart, by contrast, was as spacious and romantic as I’ve heard it. Simpson was an ideal match: playing a special oversized clarinet with long plumbing to reach the lowest notes of the original score, his sound was velvety the bottom and his control seemed effortless. Classy stuff.