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Orsi sopranino saxophone

Orsi sopraninoOrigin: Italy
Guide price: £700+ used
Weight: -
Date of manufacture: Circa 1990 (estimated)
Date reviewed: April 2005

A rare example of the smallest of the saxophone family, in its even rarer curved format

Now here's a saxophone you don't see every day!
There are a couple of good reasons why the sopranino is rather less well known than all the other saxes, and it boils down to the fact that there's not a lot of use for it musically - and it's a relatively expensive and difficult instrument to make.
It's always seemed to me that the only reason it exists is because someone, somewhere said they could make one.

The saxophone is an instrument built on compromises - and the higher the pitch the smaller the sax, and thus the less room there is to even out those compromises. It follows too that the smaller the instrument, the more accurate must be its design and build.
The Orsi doesn't look like an expensive horn. The body features a curious mix of drawn and soldered on tone holes - presumably they opted to solder on the tone holes where they were either too small to draw successfully, or too inconvenient.
No matter though, a tone hole is a tone hole - and provided it's level there shouldn't be too many problems. Unfortunately the tone holes weren't level. Not a great start.
The pillars and fittings look a trifle clumsy. This is, in part, due to the relatively small body (and perhaps the fact that this is a curved model). The keys have to be of a certain size, thus the pillars and fitting have to match - but it does lend the horn a rather ungraceful look.
They haven't been that well fitted either, there's evidence of solder overrun here and there, and the lacquered body is showing signs of corrosion through flux bleed through from these fittings. Then again, it's not a new horn so perhaps it hasn't done all that badly.
Finishing off the body is some rather scratchy and uneven engraving on the bell - and even the serial number below the thumb hook is offline. It's perhaps a point of little consequence, but then again you don't often find wonky engraving on a decent horn...

On then to the keywork, and it's clear that compromises have been made here too. The keywork exhibited significant amounts of free play in the key barrels which could not have been attributed to wear and tear, rather it's been built this way. This is never ideal on any instrument, but the smaller the instrument the more critical becomes the need for precision and accuracy in the action. A very great deal of work had to be done to bring the keywork into an acceptable condition, but even then there were limits as to what could be done due to the design of individual keys.
The design of the action itself is rather old-fashioned - particularly the octave key mechanism, which although functional is nonetheless a little clumsy.
The size of the instrument places constraints on the keywork too - there's only so much room to incorporate the low C/Eb touchpieces, and so your fingers end up feeling somewhat cramped. Similarly, the palm keys (this horn tops out at E) are rather awkwardly placed.
The pads, as fitted, are of the plain type - with only the larger ones having a small rivet. They're not great pads, many of them being rather too thick for the purpose - and you simply can't get away with this on such a small instrument.

In essence it appears the instrument is of very old design. This is perhaps understandable given that the market for sopraninos is very small - why go to the trouble of designing a new one when the demand just isn't out there...or other manufacturers have beaten you to it.

So, from a mechanical perspective things aren't looking terribly rosy - how then does it play?

About as well as it looks, is probably the most diplomatic answer.
The first thing to take into account is that you really must use a decent mouthpiece. There's no getting away with anything less than the proper job here - there are already far too many compromises in play, and you simply can't afford to add yet another by using a dodgy mouthpiece.
You'll need a good one anyway, to help rein in the tuning - which is, how shall I put it...interesting?
Undoubtedly it will take a fair amount of time to get used to the quirks of a sopranino - much the same as it takes time to get used to a soprano - but there's very much a sense that things are a tad too far out with this horn.

As regards tone....
Well, I like to think I'm broad-minded - almost every horn has something virtuous tonewise even if it's not to your personal taste, but I couldn't get away from feeling that what this horn lacked was not so much a tone but rather a red nose and a unicycle.
It's quite a stiff horn to blow and requires a lot of effort to coax a rounded tone out of it - and that's before you have to deal with the issue of moving to a note which may or may not be entirely in tune. Even after some considerable time spent wrestling my embouchure into shape I was still playing a full semitone out between the low and mid Bb...though, bizarrely, low Bb to mid B natural was a perfect octave.

Most horns have potential - even if you can't find it immediately you always get the sense that it's there. You can blow a rattly old Conn 6M, or a leaky Selmer MKVI and still find that core tone pushing through against all odds. There's nothing like this from the Orsi - or if there is it's so far back that only a very great deal of time and effort would coax it out.

There can't be many pressing reasons to own and play a sopranino, and perhaps because of this and the accuracy required during manufacture these horns have never really made it into the mainstream market. This particular horn is fascinating by dint of its size and shape, but for a player I feel the appeal must surely end there. You'll pay quite a premium for this type of sax too (well over £2000 for a new Orsi - and I sincerely hope the current model is better made than this earlier example) - especially after you've factored in the cost of the repairs needed to bring it up to scratch, and the price of a decent mouthpiece - both of which are a must.
There may well be good sopraninos out there - and the one by Yanagisawa must surely rank as a very strong contender, ditto the Selmer...though neither are of the curved variety - but this ain't one of them.

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