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Lafleur (B&S Weltklang) GDR baritone saxophone

Lafleur baritone saxophoneOrigin: East Germany
Guide price: £300 for an old considerably more for a pristine example
Weight: Heavy!
Date of manufacture: 1970s
Date reviewed: February 2011

A budget baritone from the Eastern Bloc

Back when I were a lad there were three options available if you wanted to play a baritone sax; a top-of-the-range Selmer MKVI, priced at squillions of pennies; a secondhand vintage American model, without a low A and with often very squishy keywork - or one of these, the East German 'cheapo' bari.
There were a LOT of these about, mostly because of the price of the Selmer and the limitations of vintage models - and because they got the job done at a price that didn't break the bank.
They appeared under a variety of names - the Lafleur (as this one is), the Weltklang (the most common) and the B&M Champion. Under the Weltklang name this horn was called 'The Soloist' - there's a slightly cheaper model that's simply badged 'Weltklang'.
As if that isn't confusing enough, there's more than one kind of Lafleur. It's just a brand name, and got stamped on whatever the retailer bought you could see the same name stamped on a Czechoslovakian-built horn.

It may surprise you to know that these horns were built by B&S - who subsequently went on to build such horns as the Medusa, the 2001 and the Guardala; quite expensive horns. This explains why some people seem to hold these baritones in quite high regard.
The factory produced most of the entire range of saxes under the Weltklang banner - their sopranos were bloody awful, their altos were iffy, their tenors were so-so...but their baritone was about the most successful of the bunch in terms of tone, tuning and build quality. This is largely due to larger instruments being rather more forgiving of small manufacturing issues as opposed to any effort on the manufacturer's part to excel at building baritones.
Nonetheless they were of basic but functional quality (catering quality, as I call it) - and for a very long time, at least until the advent of Japanese horns, there wasn't much else out there on the market. The death knell finally sounded for them in the 1980s when the Taiwanese entered the market and the Jupiter usurped the East German model as the budget bari of choice.

It's perhaps a credit to the manufacturers that many Weltklang baritones are still in use today, even with the advent of brand new Chinese baritones at sub-£1000 prices a used Weltklang is still an attractive option for a bari player on a tight budget provided one can be found at the right price.
It's worth keeping in mind that earlier models (some even had rolled tone holes) were reputed to be of better quality...though even then there's general agreement that the quality was variable.

The photo gives an indication of how this model was developed - note the ring above the low A key cup. It's a fair bet that the body tube down to the ring above the low C# tone hole was exactly the same as the earlier model that only went down to low Bb. By making a new section that housed the low B, Bb and A tone holes, then attaching a section of the bell from the Bb model, a low A variant could be produced quite cheaply. The method of manufacturing wasn't uncommon at the time, when the low A was beginning to become a popular feature. The only other addition would be the necessary keywork - which is simple enough.

The construction is pretty basic, with no frills; there's no detachable bell or upper bow joint (so if you drop the horn and bend it, it will require the body to be unsoldered in order to gain access to the bore); there's very little bracing, particularly around the upper bow - and the bell brace will drive itself into the body in the event of a bell-on fall; and the static thumb rest is more of an afterthought than a precisely angled ergonomic support.
The lack of sufficient bracing on the upper bow often means that crook socket downpipe is subjected to a lot of stress - especially when the mouthpiece is being pushed onto the crook cork. This leads to bending of the tube, which in turn throws the octave key mechanism out of line. This is a major problem, as the octave mech has no leeway designed into it at all - one part slightly out of line and the pads simply won't seal. When clients bring these horns in complaining of recently developed response problems, this mechanism is the first thing I look at.
The pillars and fittings are soldered on with varying quality; the guard feet in particular are very prone to dropping off and disappearing - so much so that I have a template for making new ones out of sheet brass, and the owner of this baritone has found that it's wise to keep a tube of superglue in the case as there's no telling when a pillar might suddenly fall off for no apparent reason at all.

A very common problem with these East German horns is warped tone holes. This, fortunately, is easy to correct - if a tad expensive - due to the plain tone holes. It's a very different matter on those models with rolled tone holes.
It's this issue that's given these horns such a poor reputation down the years, so if you're thinking of buying one it's wise to factor in the potential cost of having them sorted out - though because they've been around for a good few years now there's every chance that this work may have already been done. Check for original pads (see below) - if fitted it may indicate that the horn has not been overhauled.

The finish isn't too bad on the whole. This example looks a bit grimy, but underneath all the muck the plating's in quite good condition. Lacquered models tend to wear rather more, but it's by no means a big problem.

Lafluer baritone octave keyThe keywork complements the basic design of the body - you very clearly get what you pay for.
It's crude in places, quite 'blocky' in design - but reasonably tough nonetheless. There's quite a lot of 'spring' in the keywork, which can be something of a problem once the keys get to a certain size. This leads to a rather squishy feel under the fingers...the keys continue to flex for some way after the pressed key has done its work (either opening or closing a pad, for example). On the plus side, if you knock the keywork it's quite likely that it will simply bounce back into place.

As per the body there are few refinements. There are no adjusters on the stack keys, and this in itself isn't that much of a big deal - but on some East German models they used strips of red rubber instead of cork for the key buffers. If you've never experienced the feel this gives to the action then I suppose the best description I can give is that it's like trying to play a mattress. This again is something to watch out for when purchasing - a complete recork is the only viable fix.

The aforementioned rather clunky octave key mechanism that tends to leak unless it's set 'just so' is perhaps the Achilles heel of these baritones. There's no place for the soft, comfortable and quiet feel of felt here (like that fitted to the octave key touchpiece shown on the left)...if there's even a fraction of give in the corks it will be multiplied by the flex in the keywork and the whole thing will simply leak. Good, hard cork is what's needed. It makes the mechanism feel a bit lumpen, but it's the only way to ensure it works properly.

This theme carries over to the low A mechanism. The flex in the keywork is amplified by the length of the keys.
This - coupled with a very likely warped tone hole and an extraordinarily squishy pad (which we'll get on to shortly) - means that it's nothing short of a miracle that anyone can hit a low A on one of these horns.
Lafluer baritone bell key spatulasBut, the Lafluer has a little trick up its sleeve!
Not only do you get a low A thumb key, you also get an extra spatula key on the left hand table.
OK, granted, this key is just as flexible as all the others - but between it and the thumb key it gets the job done...and then some. I reckon if you placed a Brazil nut between the low A key cup and the tone hole, the combined closing force of these two keys would pop the shell off in an instant.
It all rather sounds like a workaround for a poorly built thumb key, but in use I found this additional table key to be a real boon. It opens up a number of additional fingering possibilities...but more than that it just feels so natural to slide your finger down off the Bb spatula to get a low A. After half an hour of playing this horn and then reverting to my own bari (which only has a thumb key), I found myself reaching for a non-existent table key.
Note though how blocky the spatula keys are - they're practically a homage to Picasso.
Note too that very crude bell brace - if you look closely at the lower mount you can see where a knock to the bell has pushed it into the body. This will explain why sharp-eyed readers might have noticed that in the main shot the baritone seems to be leaning slightly forward around the top stack. That's because it is.
Due to the cost of dismantling a baritone without detachable sections, players often settle for having them set up so that they work 'around the bend'.

To be fair, they have tried to make some concessions to the flex in the keywork - it's just that they didn't try very hard.
This is the additional regulation link between the low Bb key and the low B, which acts in tandem with the tab that usually hangs off the bottom of the low B spatula - the idea being to give the low Bb key a little bit of a boost when it comes to closing the low B pad.
Lafluer bari low BbThe trouble is it's so very small indeed - and the keys so large - that the leverage required to make it work would probably end up in the keys bending.
In fact all it really seems to do is hold off the low B pad - and as such it's about the most pointless design I think I've ever seen.

Finally, the key pearls are cheap, dished plastic - which does nothing to help the feel of the action.
On the plus side though, proper point screws are used - so that although the action flexes with gay abandon, you can at least ensure it won't wobble. Always nice to have a bonus.

Just a quick note regarding the springs. As originally fitted they're not quite blued steel but neither are they those awful cheap stainless ones. They're actually not that bad, to be honest, and they seem to be as tough as the proverbial old boots. If they're in good condition, leave them well alone - they'll do just fine.

I mentioned the pads earlier, and this is something of a curiosity on East German horns.
They're incredibly springy, due to their having no backing card. When fitted, the glue that holds them in the key cups only grips the pad by the outer edge - leaving the felt core free to move up and down. This is curious enough in itself but there's also a metal ring fitted inside the pad, over which the leather sits. The upshot of all this is that the pads tend to 'hang' from the sides of the key cups, with very little support beneath them. If you press down on the centre of the pad it sinks into the key cup and then pops up again...quite literally sometimes, as the flat reflector acts like one of those little metal clicky toys.
Added to all this is the quality of the leather itself - we're back to the proverbial old boots again, which is probably where they got the leather from.
So - this all sounds appalling...but perhaps not...because they practically last forever.
I've repaired Weltklangs that are over forty years old...and still on the same set of pads. If the tone holes are made level, the key cups correctly angled and proper corks and felts used in place of the original rubber buffers, these funny old pads will just about do the business. Sure, you won't get an absolutely perfect seal, nor will the keys close with satisfying certainty - but hey, we've all played worse!

Speaking of which - how does it play?
Nowhere near as badly as you might think (from all my previous comments).
Yes, the action feels a bit clumsy and imprecise - but then it's a cheap baritone, and to some extent you can get away with it. It's not too uncomfortable under the fingers - the keys are reasonably well placed, though the bell key table isn't all that nimble in practice.
This particular horn has had the awful rubber buffers changed and a number of pads swapped out - so in places it felt reasonably firm, and with a bit of modding you can make substantial improvements to the feel.
Tonewise it's a bit of a honker. It's not that it's incapable of finesse, it's just that it has a tendency to add a little bit of buzziness to each and every note. In its defence I'll say that you get used to it quite quickly, but it soon becomes clear that this baritone is far more comfortable when it's being blown hard.
This is, essentially, what it was designed for - for so many years it was the staple fare of horn section players who couldn't run to a Selmer and who needed a low A...and in that respect it does the job admirably.
I can't in all honesty say that the tone is even across the range, it tends to get a bit dry the further up the scale you go. With some care and practice, and the right mouthpiece, you could smooth things out quite considerably, but this horn's forte lies in pumping out the low notes with gritty determination.
The tuning's not too bad...perhaps a touch wild at the top, but nothing that couldn't be brought into line with time spent getting used to the horn's foibles.
One thing to note is that the mouthpiece supplied with these horns was utterly dreadful, which again probably didn't help the horn's reputation.

In spite of my harsh words I do have a soft spot for these old troopers - in fact I've done many a gig on this horn in particular, having depped for the owner a number of times without having a baritone of my own.
Providing you're aware of its limitations, and are prepared to take the bull by the horns, you can do quite a lot with an East German bari.
However, there's the issue of the competition these days - and it's quite strong. A modern Ultra-Cheap Chinese baritone will be based on either a Selmer, Yamaha or Yanagisawa design, and in that sense it's already streets ahead ergonomically. It's also a great deal tougher, having better braces and rather stiffer keywork. The pads might not be of top quality, but they're far firmer - and the whole thing adds up to a much more presentable package...and at a price that won't make you cough (much).

The price of a GDR bari can be quite variable though- I've seen these horns selling for quite a lot of money, which is surprising given the build quality and the so-so tone...but you can sometimes find them going for a great deal less. The owner of this bari paid but a few hundred pounds for it. I think if you bought one of these because you'd read some glowing reports about them but had never previously played one yourself, you might end up being quite disappointed - it all depends what you paid for it, I suppose.

Having done battle on the workbench with hundreds of Weltklangs I suppose I should be quite glad to see the back of them, but from a personal perspective I have a little fondness for this rough and ready horn that just keeps going no matter what.
It's the Monty Python Black Knight of saxophones...

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