Situated almost mid way between Stuttgart and Munich lies the small Bavarian town of Burgau, in which can be found the workshops of Frank Hammerschmidt Klarinetten Meisterwerkstatt fur Holsblasinstrumente. As clarinet makers the Hammerschmidt family go back many generations. There are, I believe, no less than five branches of the family still in the business, although not all these produce clarinets. In Burgau alone there two branches and in Austria there is an uncle renowned for supplying instruments for, among others, the Vienna Philharmonic.
In fact, when I visited the factory in July this year, I saw several German system instruments with the Vienna variant on the Oehler system. That is, they have three open tone holes on the lower joint rather than the covered-plate second hole. theses were destined for a major Austrian orchestra. The reason for my visit, however, was to collect a pair of Boehm system instruments that I had ordered six months earlier, having had the opportunity to try a pair made for Tony Coe. These instruments are truly remarkable. Frank Hammerschmidt has, after considerable research and development, achieved the synthesis of German sound quality with plain Boehm fingering - without apparent compromise. Frank claims that there is virtually no difference in sound between his Boehm and German-system instruments and this, give the right mouthpiece, I can confirm. On arrival at the factory the clean, modern and efficient feel instantly impresses one. The reception is bright and spacious and includes a glass case with instruments on display, and a wall of signed photographs from many distinguished (and, in many case, less-distinguished) players, who play Frank Hammerschmidt's instruments. Each instrument is individually handmade and then finished and tuned by Frank Hammerschmidt himself, who expects to customise fine-tuning according to the client's preference and choice of mouthpiece.
I found these instruments to play equally well with either a French or German mouthpiece, provided of course the internal dimensions are correct. Although I initially tested these instruments with a French-lay mouthpiece and V12 number three reeds, I have now settled on an excellent German mouthpiece, provided by Frank Hammerschmidt, which plays well with Black Master 3.5 reeds. Such wonderfully dark tones. This mouthpiece in fact has a long lay more in keeping with the Vienna school. The intonation of these instruments is impeccable, right up to the top - which one would expect given the individual treatment. It was so nice to play an instrument where all the straightforward simple top-note fingering work well without the need for additional fingers.
Keywork is of high standard and works well. I particularly liked the slightly larger rings which give a very positive feel. One deviation from the norm is the disposal of the usual crowsfoot on the RH long keys. This has been replaced by two individual leavers acting directly on the relevant pads, complete with adjustable grub screws. Also I feel the LH C sharp/G sharp lever to be improved, the pivot having been moved to allow for more natural feel. Bushing out the tone hole from the body has accomplished this. The side-key B flat, my personal bete noir [schwarzes Schaf? (Ed.)], is also more comfortable due, I believe, to the fact that the lower pillar is further away from the body than the upper one, thus moving the pivot line nearer that of the operating finger. I feel this is key that could do with some radical improvement, I am tempted to try the German system configuration. The instruments are available in both the usual Blackwood and Cocobola. I saw a beautiful Cocobola Oehler system with gold-plated keywork which had been made for a distinguished German player.
I have no confess that succumbed and ordered a Cocobola in C with gold keys. This will be made to play with the standard B flat mouth piece. I can't wait. If, like me, you admire the German/Vienna school or just want a throughly satisfactory instrument, then I urge you to beat a path to Frank Hammerschmidt's factory in Burgau, I promise you will not be disappointed with either the instruments or the fine hospitality of the Hammerschmidt family.
One last word, and I quote from O. Lee Gibson's excellent book Clarinet Acoustics: "At the end of the Twentieth Century, the clarinet has finally approached a stage of acoustical advancement comparable to that reached in 1650 by the Cremonse violine makers who were Antonio Stradivari's immediate predecessors, and that there will be such a maker of the Boehm clarinet."
I believe Frank Hammerschmidt to be in the running.
With thanks to Tony Coe for allowing me to try his instruments first and to Alan Hacker for putting me in touch with Tony. For those who wish to visit, details are :Frank Hammerschmidt Klarinetten, Augsburger Strasse 46, Postfach 1271, 89331 Burgau/Schwaben, Germany. Telephone 00498222