Recorder Mythbusters: Stanesby Junior Copies and Grenadilla Instruments, Part 2

In Part 1 of this three-part post series on acquiring my Von Huene Stanesby Jr. alto recorder in grenadilla, I described my preconceived notions about grenadilla and Stanesby Jr. instruments in general, leaving off at the point when I stumbled across two used Von Huene instruments on the workshop’s consignment list and decided to contact Patrick to inspect them prior to possible purchase due to various “gut feelings.” Sure enough, when I called him up the next day to do so, he revealed to me upon inspection that the Denner had issues.  Instantly, my heart fell, yet it perked up when Patrick began highly praising the Stanesby and its good condition and tone.  Upon hearing that, my preconcieved notions once again began to replay in my mind, but I quelled them by ordering my mind to flip to objective mode. Once in this mode, I asked which of the two instruments was better, since I wanted to save on shipping and just get one instrument so I would not have to pay return shipping for the one I did not want after the trial period had elapsed.  However, Patrick insisted that he send me both, citing that I truly needed to try them in person before making a decision.  After enough insisting on his part, I agreed, and the two instruments were packed up and shipped to me in a few days.

Even though Patrick had given me his opinion on the two instruments, I still half clung to the notion that I did not want a grenadilla instrument and a Stanesby copy.  I was constantly thinking to myself into the fact that although the Denner had issues, I would still probably like it better.  Upon unpacking the newly-arrived box containing the instruments, I immediately went for the Denner, which was packed without a case.  No, the finish was not the glossy stained boxwood that I had envisioned, but a light yellow as if almost unfinished.  I was also highly surprised by the extreme light weight of this instrument; my Mollehauer was considerably heavier than this one. Holding this Denner was literally like holding nothing. Warming it up under my armpit to prevent condensation while playing, I proceeded to examine the Stanesby, which was nestled in a snug Cavallero roll bag lined with fleece.  This alone demonstrated to me that the owner had indeed taken meticulous care of the instrument like I did with my Mollenhauer, and upon closer examination, I started to feel drawn to the instrument. It appeared that the instrument had barely been played. The glossy, buffed finish, the beautiful brown grain in the black wood, just its beauty in general — it was almost as if the instrument itself was beckoning to me. Remembering the “gorgeous tone” comment next to its listing, I found myself not only mesmerized by its exterior beauty, but also increasingly eager to behold its internal beauty. Surely this was the instrument of a virtuoso. However, my preconceived notions again kicked in when I remembered the Denner under my arm, and now that the head joint was warm enough, it was time to start putting that instrument through its paces.

Upon playing a few long tones and scales, carefully checking for articulation and response, I immediately noticed that while the Denner indeed played like my Mollenhauer, its overall response and consistency was less than desirable. High notes did not speak easily; the tuning was inconsistent; the tone was unfocused and breathy; and its overall response was sluggish. Indeed, as I had been forewarned, this instrument had issues, and closer examination of the windway definitively proved to me that the previous owner had tampered with the voicing. Still, I decided that twenty minutes of playing for one day was not enough to fully judge and rule out the instrument; I would have to “get to know it” in more detail. Furthermore, with me confused over 415 pitch due to perfect pitch and my discovery that a 415 instrument requires more air and support than a 440 instrument, I reasoned that I needed to get adjusted to 415 instruments further and would hence have to give the trials a few days before final verdict. Since the maximum twenty minutes for any new instrument — new or used — was up, however, it was time to switch to the Stanesby.

Upon warming the head joint up and then blowing my first note, I was instantly taken back by the deep, sensuous tone and crystal-clear projection of the instrument. The “gorgeous tone” comment next to the instrument’s online listing was no hyperbole, yet I had not expected the magnamity of tone that was coming from the instrument. No, this was not a loud, piercing, overtly bright instrument that I had envisioned grenadilla instruments to be; this was the sweetest-sounding instrument I had ever heard — mellow with a slight touch of brilliance. Mesmerized and still recovering from my initial surprise, I proceeded to play some scales, long tones, sonata excerpts. The instrument’s response was unlike anything I had ever known: Quick, yet not as deft as that of my Mollenhauer or the other Denner. Not only did I feel that I was working harder in articulation, but I also felt that this instrument required more support and air than the Mollenhauer or other Denner. To achieve good tone, I had to support the sound more — more than even singing, and what I could easily do in one breath on my Mollenhauer or the other Denner, I had to do in two on this instrument. I literally felt like I was driving a truck rather than a car.

Despite these initial negative mental notes about the instrument, I soon discovered a treasure stash within this instrument. For example, the high notes on this instrument proved superb — easier to play and more in-tune than the other two instruments. No longer was I upping support and breath pressure to play the topmost notes and receiving an unwelcome squeal; the high notes just spoke by beautifully themselves at normal breath pressure for the high notes. Furthermore, with regards to the instrument’s individual weight, this was not a heavy, clunky instrument as many had told me regarding grenadilla instruments. Although this grenadilla Stanesby was indeed a tad heavier than my Mollenhauer, the difference was so small that I did not even give weight a second thought when playing it. Never once did I develop hand cramps or feel any discomfort.

After I had finished twenty minutes of playing on the Stanesby, I found myself extremely torn between the two instruments. Although my mind was gradually clearing of my preconceived notions, they still remained to a minor extent. Yes, the Denner responded more agilely with regards to articulation, yet its speech problems and overall inconsistency in tone, intonation, and response deterred me from further consideration. By contrast, the Stanesby lacked the agility of the Denner and required more air and support to play, yet its rich, focused tone and easy response of the high notes had me smitten. I thought that such easy response on the high notes was the signature characteristic for only Denners! And no — this instrument would not drown out a harpsichord as I had dreaded. Recalling how one must adjust to different instruments due to their uniqueness, I reasoned that, with much diligence and gradual adjustment, I would be able to overcome my support and articulation discomfort on the instrument which made me feel like I was driving a truck.

In my heart, I knew which instrument would most likely become my choice, yet two finals question lingered: Would this instrument be able to stand up to the virtuoso repertoire that stood at the forefront of my recorder-related passion, and would this heavier instrument prove problematic during virtuoso passages and to my petite hands in general? So far, all seemed “good to go” in these two aspects, yet I decided I would need an expert’s aid in the final verdict. After all, this purchase was an investment for life, and I wanted to ensure that I was pursuing the best decision possible. Reaching for the phone, I contacted my teacher and arranged an appointment a few days away. In the meantime, I would have more time to play and make further observations about both instruments for a more solid decision.

To be continued ….

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