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Mollenhauer Modern Alto - Review

by Craig Carmichael Craig@oases.com

I've updated this a bit now that I've had a bit more experience with the instrument and played it in a consort, and since there seems to be a lot more interest in it than I expected. I've called the lowest octave F' - E', the next octave F'' - E'', and the top notes F''' up.

Upon first playing it, the immediately startling thing was the volume. It does have more volume overall than other recorders I've played - the sound really fills the room. But it doesn't seem to take much more air, just a somewhat higher pressure.

The next striking thing was that the low notes seem as loud as the upper ones. The weakness we are so accustomed to hearing in the lowest half octave is gone, and this helps give playing a new and pleasant feel.

It has a lovely rich tone, with somewhat different overtones than most recorders. It has a form of reedyness, but more smooth like a clarinet reed rather than the sharpness of an oboe reed.

According to the cheap VU meter on my stereo it's about three or four DB louder than my white plastic Yamaha (at F'',C'), which I've always felt had good volume. Of course, the volume of the Yamaha drops off at low pitch, resulting in a difference indication of around 8 DB at low F. (The sensitivity of the VU meter also dropped off dramatically with pitch, and I had to crank the gain up substantially for each lower note - not very reassuring as to accuracy!)

3 DB difference is double the accoustic energy while 6 DB is double the perceived volume. Subjectively, I'd say the instrument does sound nearly twice as loud.

I didn't feel out of place playing in a consort. I wasn't really sure if I was louder than the other three altos except in the low register where the others dropped off. There, it sounded almost like I was the only one playing.


The thumb hole seems to take a somewhat wider opening for the top notes (i.e. E, F, F#, G, G#) than my other recorders, which I'm sure I'll get used to soon enough and is probably an advantage, probably less critical.

The tuning seemed mainly quite good. C#' is good with T-1-2-4-5-6 instead of T-1-2-4-5, which was rather sharp (as on every other recorder I've played). One note, however, mid F#'', is a bit flat (around 15c), with T- only just slightly better than 1-2 fingering. This appears to be the design's worst flaw.

Nikolaj Tarasov writes, "Like on some other recorders this one [mid F#] is a bit flat, and I play it therefore as a forte pitch. When playing a separate F# piano, I am using - 1-3 4--- or - 1-3 4-6(7) (one key at 7). The T--- ---- I only use in some fast passages when better to finger than the common above. Or in some trills."

The extended upper register is nice. I especially like having the good F#''' (T/2-1-3-4-6-7) and the A''' (T/2-1/2-2/2, a fairly easy fingering) - the rest is gravy. High C''' seems to be the top note that can be played without blasting. Two fingering systems are shown on the chart. It seems that system one is for normal use and two is for louder volume, according to musical context. In system one, the left hand remains stationary from F''' up with all four holes part-open, while the right hand fingers determine the note. Mostly, right-hand holes are open or closed, in no observable pattern according to pitch, but F''', Bb''' and C''' each have one hole part-open, and B uses one key of 7. In system two, F#''' to Ab''' are T/2 1 - 3 on the left hand, and A''' to C''' are T/2 1/2 2/2 -, again with the note being determined with the right hand. Some players have created other fingerings. There seem to be quite a lot of possibilities. Of course, it is necessary to practice to play this upper register with any speed. We play the lower notes all the time, but paradoxically, the higher notes that are more difficult we practice least.

I feel that I would probably not be categorically outclassed playing with a small group with other common wind and string instruments, as I would be with most recorders, at least once I add my dynamics-tuning device for playing the pianissimo sections.

Appearance, Design

I find the design quite attractive. The decorative turnings are very fine lined and it has the appearance of not having a lot of excess wood anywhere, but the diameter is greater overall than most, giving thick walls. The extra 1-1/4" length helps give it a sleek appearance.

On the outside, the conicalness ends between holes 3 and 4 and it is largely cylindrical from there down. Inside, it continues to narrow right to the bell, but less sharply than in the upper end. The end hole is about the same size as other altos - how you can get the same bottom F with the same size hole and an extra 1-1/4" length is beyond me! The narrow windway is curved; the ramp is steep and has deep sides (said to help the low register), owing to the greater outside diameter at this point. Its 14 mm windway & labium width (instead of about 11) probably accounts for much of its extra sound volume. Most of the holes are undercut on the inside into various odd shapes, excepting only the very small G# hole. Because of the two guilded keys for the little finger, the F and F# holes (or should I say F# & G?) are low on the foot and large, about the size of the bell hole.

The finish is a simple matt finish bringing out the grain of the pearwood; no gloss or varnish. (It is also available in a harder wood.)

It comes in a rather elegant semi-circular soft case that zippers around the rim, opening into a circle with five parallel sleeves holding the body (in the center of the circle), a cleaning stick, the head joint, the foot joint, and a small tub of cork grease out by the rim. A fingering chart for the upper 1/2 octave and the "Modern Alto demo CD" with Nickolai Tarasov were enclosed in a sleeve on the cover side.

I look forward to many enjoyable years of playing with this lovely instrument. The brochure with it says it's designed for good tuning, etc, "and... and... and... a long life".

Soap Box Oration

This is what a recorder should be! It sets a new alto standard - Way to go, Helder, Tarasov & Mollenhauer! I think the sound of a good recorder soloist might astonish people who thought they knew what to expect!

As better designs become common in all sizes and from more sources, consorts, too may take on a new aspect. (Especially, of course, if they include a couple of viols and play my Blockflute Overture and/or Closet Symphony! <-advertising supplement.)

And, with a dynamics/tuning/vibrato control plus the special effects recorders do well, recorder musical horizons broaden to the possibility of their being much more valuable in smaller mixed ensembles for new music. They should balance well with other winds up to MF, and with the strong low notes, composers can use the full range, and may thus write at a lower pitch for a richer recorder sound. Forte passages still have to be written near the top where the pitch stands out, and now there's more notes up there, too. In effect, *both* ends of the range have been extended.

My own first mixed instrument effort, 'Addwinds Trio Suite' for recorder, oboe and french horn wasn't bad with the Yamaha alto, but it will certainly sound better with the modern. The second, 'Three Strong Winds That Blow Harmony', with its use of the low register and a couple of high F#'s (the key being D major), really requires it. (GIF scores free from www.oases.com/Recorders.html)

Perhaps Vivaldi too would have appreciated a recorder that wouldn't be submerged in the waves in the opening notes of his "La Tempesta di Mare" concerto?