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Moeck Baroque Rackett Review

 by Tom Leoni, with permission

After a few years coveting a Baroque Rackett, I ended up buying the instrument from Lazar's Early Music (excellent service!), sending it en route to Keith Loraine to have it checked out and have a couple good reeds made. Here's the review for those who may be interested.   
Instrument: Moeck Baroque Rackett
Price Paid: $1442 (November 2006)
Retailer: Bill Lazar's Early Music (http://members.aol.com/LazarsEarlyMusic/lazarsearlymusic.html)
Reed Manufacturer: Keith Loraine (www.loraine.com)
Waiting Time: Approximately 15 business days between order placement and receipt of instrument. (Please bear in mind that many of these exotic instruments are not kept on inventory, but they are requested from the manufacturer when the order is placed.)
I am happy to say that the Moeck Baroque Rackett is all that I had hoped for in terms of quality, playability and sound. I will try to write as comprehensive a review of this instrument as is fitting for this venue, so as to hopefully provide to other prospective buyers the kind of information I had been looking for (but did not find) before I bought it.  
A bit of background. The Baroque Rackett replicated by Moeck is believed to have been invented by German instrument maker J. C. Denner (1655-1707). It is essentially a bassoon compressed into a small package, with the length of its bore coiled ten times inside its body. This feature gives the Rackett both its great range and its peculiar beer-bottle appearance--a friend irreverently compared it to "an insane bong." And this is why, at the time, it was also known by the name of "sausage bassoon." Compared to the earlier Renaissance Rackett, it has a greater range, a gentler sound, and it sports a conical bore rather than a cylindrical one.  
And now, to the review of the Moeck Baroque Rackett.
Packaging, Fit and Finish. The Baroque Rackett arrived in a sturdy and very well built lockable hard case lined in plush red velvet. It came complete with a Moeck reed (in its own ABS box), cork grease, a fingering chart, a Moeck certificate and a set of instructions for reed maintenance. The instrument itself was beautifully finished, with brass-to-wood fit showing excellent manufacturing. The color of the oiled pearwood was considerably darker than what is portrayed in many catalog pictures, which I found to be richer and more pleasing, especially in contrast with the Rackett's brass elements. The wood showed plenty of grain, making it a rather striking piece.  
The fingerholes were also oiled to the inside, and they were cut precisely and finely--while the brass tetines (to be fingered by the pinkies and by the middle index-joints) were nicely fitted and featured rounded-off edges quite pleasing to the touch. Overall, I found the manufacturing quality of the Moeck Rackett and the packaging to be excellent and entirely satisfactory.  
Rackett Fingering. One of the horror stories you may hear about the Baroque Rackett is about the supposed difficulty of its fingering, since it involves the use of all ten fingers plus the middle joints of both indexes. I could not disagree more with this. Yes, you must occasionally use all ten fingers plus the middle index-joints, but overall I find Rackett fingering to be very logical and linear: if you think of the Rackett as an instrument in F, you'll observe that fingering is not too dissimilar to that of a recorder for the instrument's most useful range, and if you play the modern bassoon, you will recognize the fingering as well.  
Furthermore, the joints of the index fingers are only used in the Rackett's lowest register (BBb to F#), with the exception of the Bb a ninth below middle c and a couple notes in the high register, which, depending on your reed, may also be produced with a different fingering without the index joints. In any case, getting used to playing a few notes with the index joints is not all that difficult--look how often you need to employ them to finger the keys of a modern bassoon, which is played by thousands. So all is quite straightforward and very simple to remember. By the way, you can see the Baroque Rackett fingering chart on Moeck's page, at www.moeck.com/GT/gtb38.pdf (the highest note there is actually an f--the e listed twice is a typographical error).
Rackett Sound, Pitch and Range. The Baroque Rackett is pitched at a=440; I have checked its accuracy with a Korg electronic tuner, finding it to be spot-on. The instrument's sound is akin to that of a bassoon, and is capable of a dynamic palette quite impressive for its small size. The nominal range of the instrument is BBb to e' or f', but with a good reed you can easily get up to a nice, clear g'. The Rackett's best register as far as sound, dynamics and agility are the two octaves between G and g', while the lowest register, going from BBb to F is a tad less agile--but that may be because of my shortcomings rather than the instrument's. The Baroque Rackett overblows at the octave, starting from g below middle c--and it does so quite effortlessly.  
I found no bi-stable notes, and using the fingering provided in the fingering chart results in sure pitch and responsive sound. As with most woodwind instruments, you may have to make occasional adjustments to the fingering to enhance certain notes, especially when you change reeds, but this is normal and doesn't take much effort.  
Rackett Musical Capabilities. With a useful range of over two and a half octaves, the Baroque Rackett can handle a lot of repertoire intended to be played with a bass instrument, baroque continuo parts being its natural environment. However, the Baroque Rackett does extremely well playing the bass parts of 17th Century instrumental canzonas such as Frescobaldi's, Selma's, Castelli's etc. I know that some will recoil in horror at this being anachronistic by a few decades, but I mentioned it to better explain the Rackett's musical capabilities. Besides, I like playing Frescobaldi with all sorts of instruments, so sue me. 
In all, the Baroque Rackett is a very fun instrument that with a little getting used to has some great musical possibilities: in spite of its "conversation piece" appearance, it is most definitely not a toy--it is a serious instrument that deserves to be learned well, and that will yield fantastic musical results. What impresses me the most are its agility, the ease with which the whole range can be sounded and the nice, dark and expressive sound that the instrument produces.  
Some caveats. There are only two things about which I want to warn potential Baroque Rackett users. The first one is that the reed that comes from Moeck with the instrument is a bit on the rough side, although with a little care and some judicious scraping (by someone who knows what he's doing!) it will perform OK. So if you buy one, please don't judge it by the out-of-the-box quality of the reed that comes with it. This is why, to be on the safe side, I had some reeds made by Keith Loraine (www.loraine.com), who is one of the country's leading experts in Renaissance and Baroque double reeds. Be advised that Keith can only make reeds if you actually send him the instrument, but he is fast and turnaround time is excellent.  
The other caveat is that condensation is more noticeable with the Rackett than with other instruments--especially for beginners--since there's not a fast and easy way to release the moisture from the Rackett. However, most condensation builds up in the coil of the brass crook (or bocal), which makes it easy to expel the moisture by simply sliding the crook out of the instrument, removing the reed and blowing the condensation out. If you do this as soon as you start hearing the condensation's "gurgle" in the bocal, the bulk of the moisture will never make it to the instrument's inner bore, and you'll be able to keep playing for hours.  
Conclusions. No, the Moeck Baroque Rackett may not be as versatile as a custom-made Baroque Bassoon or Dulcian costing three times as much. But the Rackett has impressive capabilities that are only limited by the willingness of the player to develop a good sound and to adapt to the instrument's fingering, which as I said is not that arcane or irrational. And the quality of the Moeck Baroque Rackett is excellent--with fit and finish, pitch, intonation, responsiveness and sound leaving nothing at all to be desired.  
I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone looking for something musically versatile, highly portable and a bit different.
===Some Questions Answered
What's the reviewer's musical background?
My background is centered around historical keyboard instruments as well as classical and pre-classical composition techniques. So I did not approach the Baroque Rackett as a reed-instrument player, although I have occasionally toyed with several historical winds as an amateur, as well as studied the bassoon for a few college semesters while majoring in composition.
How hard is it to learn the Baroque Rackett?
After a week after receipt of the Rackett, I was able to sound the whole range without too much effort, and I had the fingering pretty much memorized. I find it a lot easier to learn than other double-reed instruments, primarily the oboe, which is a) a lot more tiring for the mouth and b) a lot more challenging in terms of getting a decent sound. However, like is the case with all new instruments, it requires some getting used to--especially learning to listen to yourself and produce a good sound, to sustain notes from your diaphragm (rather than tensing the lips) and other things that, with practice and with the help of a good teacher, can be overcome.  
How does the Baroque Rackett compare with other wind instruments in difficulty?
I can of course only answer within the scope of my subjective experience with the instruments I have tried; but the closest in difficulty level and "instant satisfaction factor" is, not surprisingly, the bassoon. Also, I wouldn't rate it as too different from the shawm, although I find bass instruments faster for my mouth to get used to. As far as other historic winds, the Baroque Rackett is more challenging than wind-cap reed instruments such as the crumhorn or cornamuse, because of its greater range as well as the direct contact between the reed and the player's mouth. But it feels easier to learn than other wind instruments I've tried, such as the baroque oboe--or God forbid, the cornetto.    
How much are you playing it?
I try to put in frequent short practices, so as to stretch my ability to play for longer and longer times. I play the Rackett about two or sometimes three times a day for twenty minutes at a time. I try to do the usual--scales, long notes, repeated fingering passages--and reward myself with learning a couple pieces. The first Baroque piece I learned was the Frescobaldi canzona "L'Altera."
What kind or reeds does it take? What kind of embouchure is best for the Baroque Rackett? As I have said in the review, I had my reeds made by Keith Loraine. However, I also tried some modern bassoon reeds, and, after some experimentation and some judicious scraping by my teacher, they work quite well. I was pleasantly surprised by this, since buying stock bassoon reeds is considerably cheaper than having them custom-made.  
I use both plastic reeds and cane reeds--the former make excellent learning reeds because they don't require any soaking and last practically forever. Also, with plastic reeds the notes above middle c pop out more easily. Conversely, cane reeds yield a smoother, more organic sound.  
As far as embouchure, I am using and being taught a traditional bassoon technique, which works very well--i.e. with a relaxed, upper-lip overbite and forming a letter "O" with the mouth. With this embouchure, the Rackett sounds very much like a bassoon, with a nice, dark tone and without any harsh or reedy qualities.  
Are you taking lessons?
Yes. Since finding a Baroque Rackett teacher would of course be very challenging, I opted for a *very* good-quality bassoon teacher, whom I see once a week. After a few lessons, my sound is already improving, as well as my ability to sustain my notes and to get more response out of the instrument. I plan on keeping taking lessons for quite some time--this of course also depends on my relative inexperience with wind instruments as well as on my great desire to get proficient with the Baroque Rackett--as with most things in arts, determination is what carries you forward.