Playing on period instruments

 A reflection by  the clarinettist of “The Friends of Eusebius & Florestan”, Craig Hill  

A friend of mine once observed that once one starts with early instruments there is no turning back – it becomes a matter of insatiable curiosity to relearn what was once familiar; to discover a palate of tonal colours and mode of expression that enriches our musical experience.  In practical terms this has meant the adoption of gut strings for the string players, and for myself the challenge of the Baermann – Ottensteiner clarinet.

Ottensteiner clarinets

Georg Ottensteiner (1815- 1879) was perhaps the most advanced instrument builder of his era, while Carl Baermann (1810-1885), one of the greatest German clarinet teachers and virtuosi of the nineteenth century, was one of Ottensteiner’s earliest supporters. Among the many ingenious clarinet designs invented during the nineteenth century, it was Ottensteiner’s clarinets that were favoured by leading players in Germany. Likewise, Baermann’s Clarinettenschule (School of clarinet playing) published from 1864 –75 also achieved wide popularity, helpfully detailing information on various fingerings and their application, phrasing, articulation and even including a rather high- flown chapter on the clarinettist “as Artist”. My clarinet is a copy of the Ottensteiner clarinet played by Brahms’ famous collaborator, Richard Muhlfeld, which is now preserved at the Meiningen Schloss Museum.

Technically, the Ottensteiner clarinet is a study in balancing extreme parameters, existing on the very fringe (albeit an expressive one) of what is possible in clarinet design. At a time when other makers were experimenting with denser woods from Africa such as grenadilla (which, stained black, is still used for the best modern clarinets), Ottensteiner retained the traditional European boxwood, which is lighter and softer to turn on the lathe, and which takes less of a polished finish. Boxwood produces a lighter sound with a more evenly distributed harmonic spectrum, but has less power than grenadilla.

At 15mm, the diameter of the bore of Ottensteiner’s clarinet is almost as wide as acoustically possible, and helps produce the breadth and warmth of tone we might imagine is suitable for Brahms. The tone holes on the Ottensteiner clarinet are radically flared as they meet the inside bore (think cartoon nuclear- reactor shaped), smoothing the airflow as the tone hole meets the bore, and creating a melting legato which is unequalled by any modern designs. These attributes, which in themselves might lead to an overly spread and unfocussed sound, are counterbalanced by a small, slender mouthpiece with a narrow opening, which requires great finesse in blowing. Muhlfeld famously used vibrato at a time when clarinettists, especially in Vienna, cultivated a strictly unwavering tone. I feel that this particular instrument lends itself very well to either approach, either with or without vibrato, and that the exact balance between the instrument, mouthpiece, and the player’s throat can guide us as to how and where vibrato might emerge. Wagner famously compared Muhlfeld’s sound to biting into a ripe peach…

The keywork of the Ottensteiner clarinet is of greater complexity than found on most clarinets today (perhaps too complex!), while still permitting the cross fingerings and subtle finger shadings used on the previous generation of clarinets. These were useful possibilities which professional players would have been unwilling to forego. The exact adjustment of the keys is critical, and depends on tolerances of hundredths of a millimetre. As such it cannot be preserved by any historical specimen, and has to be recreated by trial and error. In this respect I have been most fortunate to be able to work with Jason Xanthoudakis, an instrument technician in Melbourne of extraordinary ability and patience, who in addition hand crafted each leather pad in nineteenth century style to mimic the flesh of the fingers. This kind of engagement with the nuts and bolts aspect of playing the clarinet would have been very much the experience of nineteenth century players; indeed the whole century is characterized by relentless experimentation and innovation.  Incidentally, the (non-corrosive) gold plating of my keys is not historical; however the original nickel silver keys probably also contain lead.

Other important starting points for our exploration of Brahms have been Joachim’s Violinschule as well as the writings of Robert Pascal, a professor at Sheffield University who has pioneered research into Brahms performance practice. Some key elements include the use of portamenti, or slides, to highlight notes of expressive or structural importance, a more sparing use of vibrato alá Joachim, and consideration of “tempo modification” whereby the player can perform the various sections of the music in substantially different tempi not indicated by the composer. In each case the performers are lead to a freer, less literal rendition of the score – doing all that it explicitly asks, but by no means feeling obliged to stop there!

If at first glance it seems like a lot of trouble to master so many different instruments, reeds, mouthpieces and techniques, then I am encouraged and inspired by the words from Carl Baermann’s method which hang over the entrance to my study:

Whoever would dedicate themself to playing the clarinet should carefully examine himself to see whether he possesses the mental fortitude and patience to learn this difficult instrument. The physical requirements are these: good health, a strong, solid chest and healthy strong teeth, at least the front teeth must be in perfect condition. The mental requirements are the same as those of every artist, namely, soulfulness, poetic imagination and a true deep sensitivity, enthusiasm for the beautiful in art, perceptiveness, a finely tuned ear, unbiased examination and understanding of one’s own abilities, acknowledgement and appropriate honour of the merits of other artists and the force of will for an endless striving and struggle towards perfection.

Craig Hill- 2010/revised 2012