If you want a recording of Mozart’s Quintet on a conventional clarinet, Jörg Widmann and the Arcanto Quartet are up there with the best. Using a basset clarinet, with its treacly extra low notes, Romain Guyot or Matthew Hunt (with Ensemble 360) bring more Papageno-ish fun to the finale. But few performances I know rival Widmann and the Arcanto for mingled refinement, imagination and sensitive give and take.
In the first two movements the players balance autumnal lyricism with more than a hint of period-style astringency. Tempi – not least in the flowing Larghetto – are on the brisk side, textures crisp and lucid, with sparing string vibrato, dynamic contrasts unusually wide. In the Minuet’s second Trio, Widmann creates two distinct characters, yodelling blithely, then digging with a vengeance into his deep, chalumeau arpeggios. The whole performance combines illuminating detail with an unerring sense of the music’s larger shapes, whether in the mounting harmonic tension of the first movement’s development or the floating serenity of the Larghetto, clarinet and first violin locked in tender colloquy.
On their own, the Arcanto, lean and sinewy of tone, are no less eloquent in the D minor Quartet. In the opening Allegro they stress the music’s elegiac fatalism rather than its agitation. Rarely will you hear such intense pianissimo playing in the mysterious – and still shocking – remote modulations at the start of the development. Here and elsewhere their response to mood and colour is matched by their care for balance and contrapuntal clarity. Perhaps the Arcanto’s rubato in the Minuet’s serenading Trio totters on the edge of winsomeness. But their vivid characterisation of the finale’s variations, from the truculent cross-rhythms of No 2 to the chaste tenderness of the D major variation, sets the seal on a desirable Mozart coupling, recorded in an aptly intimate acoustic. (Richard Wigmore / Gramophone)