Author Topic: How do you approach listening to chamber music?  (Read 1596 times)

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Offline Maestro267

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How do you approach listening to chamber music?
« on: August 14, 2021, 09:17:15 AM »
The main thing that attracts me to orchestral music is the huge variety of timbral colours available. Woodwinds, brass, percussion, keyboards and a large full body of strings. I tend to get bored easily when music spends too much time in one single soundworld. For instance, I'll happily take a passage for unaccompanied choir in the context of a large work for choir and orchestra, but I've hardly ever listened to an entire work of acapella choir. Same goes for chamber music. Most of the chamber music that has got through to me is for mixed instruments rather than the much more popular strings-and/or-piano ensembles of which a ton more works have been written.

So, to the point of the thread...those of you more experienced in listening to string quartets and the like...how exactly do you listen to them? What attracts you to those pieces? For me, if the timbre is lost, either there's got to me an instant-hit melody to warm to, or wild extended techniques to keep the interest up beyond the standard methods of playing string instruments.

Offline Jo498

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Re: How do you approach listening to chamber music?
« Reply #1 on: August 14, 2021, 11:52:34 AM »
When I began listening to classical as a teenagers I preferred orchestral music as well. But when I encountered Beethoven quartets maybe a year or two later, I never had a general problem with the sound. (It took me longer to appreciate solo piano except for a few famous pieces like "name Beethoven sonatas"). For 10 years or more I usually stuck to the principle to first listen to orchestral music of a composer and if liked it, I moved on to chamber/solo/vocal music. Overall, this took quite some time, but after two decades or so, in my mid-thirties I had probably reached a point when I often tended to prefer chamber to orchestral music.

There is nothing wrong in starting with mixed chamber music that has instant hit melodies, say Mozart's clarinet quintet or Brahms' B major trio (revised version). If these appeal, move on to more, either a bit tougher mixed ensembles or very accessible string quartets/quintets/sextets, e.g. Schubert's "Death and Maiden" D 810. If you want to try comparably short pieces with some special sound effects (mostly "on the bridge"), try Janacek's quartets or (a bit tougher) Bartok's 4th or 5th.
In any case I'd start with composers whose orchestral music you like. I am not very familiar with Schnittke or Petterson, therefore I cannot point out any pieces to try.
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DavidW

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Re: How do you approach listening to chamber music?
« Reply #2 on: August 14, 2021, 01:16:58 PM »
What attracts you to those pieces?

The counterpoint.  The instruments are having a conversation with each other, while in orchestral music they are mostly just playing together.


Offline Brian

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Re: How do you approach listening to chamber music?
« Reply #3 on: August 14, 2021, 05:34:05 PM »
I agree with the two comments so far. I spent years and years enjoying orchestral music before I got seriously into chamber music. My first decade or so listening to music for orchestra, my interest in chamber music was limited only to immediately appealing romantic things with big melodies, like Borodin quartet 2.

Some advice would be definitely focus on the way the conversation moves back and forth and the instruments debate with each other. To start with, classical era chamber music should probably not be your first move. But a lot of early 20th century chamber music is also comparatively undramatic or colorless because those guys were more about harmony than counterpoint. With the orchestral repertoire, I have really eccentric taste and enjoy lots of obscure composers, but in chamber music the famous old names like Beethoven and Schubert are still the champions.

Because of the challenges of securing large orchestra performances, many 21st century composers do their best work for chamber ensembles. Almost all my favorite music of the past 20 years is for chamber ensembles.

DavidW

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Re: How do you approach listening to chamber music?
« Reply #4 on: August 15, 2021, 04:28:27 AM »
but in chamber music the famous old names like Beethoven and Schubert are still the champions.

It has been awhile but I think those two were the ones that opened the door for me.

Another positive for me is that chamber music doesn't have as large of a dynamic range as orchestral which makes it easier to listen to in the car or the gym. :laugh:

Offline relm1

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Re: How do you approach listening to chamber music?
« Reply #5 on: August 15, 2021, 04:45:30 AM »
I don't really approach it that differently from large scale music.  In both cases, structure is important.  What you do with the material and how it's developed applies if it's a chamber piece or large scale piece.  If you don't do much with the material, it doesn't matter if it's a minute long, it's probably too long.  Someone posted a really good string quartet by a composer I never heard of but was immediately gripped.  The music didn't contain any new techniques or wide range of timbre, just very effective writing though the instrumentation was chamber.

Offline Mirror Image

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Re: How do you approach listening to chamber music?
« Reply #6 on: August 15, 2021, 05:52:04 AM »
The intimacy of chamber music is what draws me into it. I love orchestral music and like many members who have already posted in this thread, it was what I listened to the most when I first started to seriously listen to classical music. There were several key works that broke me out of this orchestral only listening, but the main one was Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp. Here is a work that draws you into this magical sound-world with only three instruments, but the fact that there’s only three instruments didn’t even matter because the writing contains such an alluring narrative. And this is my main point, if the chamber work has a narrative and there is direction in the writing, then the easier it is for me access it and, ultimately, enjoy it. I love string quartets, piano quartets, piano quintets, violin sonatas, cello sonatas, piano trios, duos of various types, etc. The instrumentation doesn’t really matter as long as I can somehow get inside of it.
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Offline 71 dB

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Re: How do you approach listening to chamber music?
« Reply #7 on: August 15, 2021, 07:11:14 AM »
The intimacy of chamber music is what draws me into it.

Same here. I also like chamber music for its less dynamic nature. The loudness level varies less than with orchestral music which makes is easier to listen to. Dynamic orchestral music is difficult volume-wise. If the volume is too high, the loudest parts make you deaf. If the volume is too low, the quiet parts are inaudible.

My favorite type of chamber music is string instrument(s) + piano: Music for Violin/Viola/Cello and Piano, Piano Trios, Piano Quartets, Piano Quintets etc. The sound of piano and string instruments complement each other nicely and I think the combination provides large enough selection of timbral colour.

That said, I enjoy classical music from solo intrument music to the largests orchestral/choral works, from J. S. Bach's Solo Cello Suites to Beethoven's String Quartets to Elgar's large oratorios.

It is all about adjusting/calibrationg your expectations of the "sonic color space" for each type of music.

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Offline Daverz

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Re: How do you approach listening to chamber music?
« Reply #8 on: August 15, 2021, 07:14:49 AM »
I usually approach string quartets (say Haydn Op. 20 and on) as trying to follow an interesting conversation among friends. 

Offline Jo498

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Re: How do you approach listening to chamber music?
« Reply #9 on: August 15, 2021, 07:51:02 AM »
I am not listening to chamber music any differently. I don't think I ever was. It's just that I can remember that I usually found orchestral music more immediately attractive. But I listened to rather small scale orchestral, e.g. string-dominated Bach, Vivaldi concerti or early Mozart symphonies from very early on and never was mostly a fan of "orchestral spectacular".

Chamber music is not monochrome but it has a different spectrum, a different impact. As has been said, it can actually be more intimate and more immediate than orchestral music.

But with the caveats mentioned above, I was almost always exploring mostly by composer, not by genre. If I was fond of a composer's music I explored more of it. And with Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert etc. one can hardly skip the chamber music.. So it certainly also depends on which composers one likes.
As one usually had to buy stuff back then, except for the radio and some things one could borrow, the exploration could be slowish and it took me often years, sometimes a decade or more to get to certain parts of some composers work.

Again, while I think the best chamber music is often not among these pieces, it could help to seek out pieces that are either close to small orchestra or have concert-like features with brilliant solo parts.

For the first category:
Schubert Octet, Mendelssohn, octet, Brahms and Dvorak sextets, Stravinsky septet, Martinu nonet

for the second:
Beethoven Kreutzer sonata, Schubert Trout quintet, Weber clarinet quintet, Schumann piano quintet
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Offline Mandryka

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Re: How do you approach listening to chamber music?
« Reply #10 on: August 15, 2021, 08:24:23 AM »
The main thing that attracts me to orchestral music is the huge variety of timbral colours available. Woodwinds, brass, percussion, keyboards and a large full body of strings. I tend to get bored easily when music spends too much time in one single soundworld. For instance, I'll happily take a passage for unaccompanied choir in the context of a large work for choir and orchestra, but I've hardly ever listened to an entire work of acapella choir. Same goes for chamber music. Most of the chamber music that has got through to me is for mixed instruments rather than the much more popular strings-and/or-piano ensembles of which a ton more works have been written.

So, to the point of the thread...those of you more experienced in listening to string quartets and the like...how exactly do you listen to them? What attracts you to those pieces? For me, if the timbre is lost, either there's got to me an instant-hit melody to warm to, or wild extended techniques to keep the interest up beyond the standard methods of playing string instruments.


I think if you're a timbre person then that's what you are and you shouldn't fight that by trying to develop a taste for counterpoint or conversation or intimacy or whatever. You're timbre and that's nothing to worry about, ignore all the timbrist comments on this thread. Be glad to be timbre, out and proud.

How big is a soundworld? I mean, maybe the way in for you is to get sensitive to the differences in timbres between the instruments in a string quartet for example, or a wind band. And to listen to ensembles which don't create a homogeneous sound -- HIP is good for that.
« Last Edit: August 15, 2021, 08:29:36 AM by Mandryka »
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Offline Brian

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Re: How do you approach listening to chamber music?
« Reply #11 on: August 15, 2021, 08:29:58 AM »
For the first category:
Schubert Octet, Mendelssohn octet, Brahms and Dvorak sextets, Stravinsky septet, Martinu nonet

for the second:
Beethoven Kreutzer sonata, Schubert Trout quintet, Weber clarinet quintet, Schumann piano quintet

This is a great starter list of advice. (Whole post is great.)

Offline (poco) Sforzando

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Re: How do you approach listening to chamber music?
« Reply #12 on: August 15, 2021, 10:30:25 AM »
Good comments above, to which I'll add that chamber music - being inevitably suited to smaller forces and smaller spaces; it's chamber music, after all, intended for smaller rooms and smaller audiences - is the most likely to reflect a composer's more intimate and introspective side. I have experienced string quartet recitals in the vast caverns of a place like New York's Carnegie Hall, but this distorts the character of the music. The silliest example I experienced ever was a recital when Evgeny Yissin and James Levine performed 4-hand Schubert music on two large concert grands for an audience of 3000. No! the music was designed for friends to sit side-by-side at a single instrument, with an audience of perhaps a few friends.

As for the timbre thing, I was taught in orchestration class that string timbre is less fatiguing over a long period than winds. And there is plenty of timbral variety in the quartets of Beethoven and Bartok as well. But the idea of a conversation among friends, epitomized perhaps in a movement like the 3rd from Beethoven's op. 130, still holds. I sometime liken the difference between orchestral (public) and chamber (private or semi-private) music to the difference between paintings and lithographs or drawings. Which is not to say a chamber piece may not have its exciting side as well. Consider movements like the finales to Beethoven's C-major op. 59/3 or Brahms's G minor piano quartet, or the third movement of the Brahms with its thrilling march interlude in 3/4 time. Small wonder Schoenberg felt that work was a suitable candidate for orchestration. But big grand Mahlerian or Brucknerian utterances is not what chamber music is all about.
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Offline Jo498

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Re: How do you approach listening to chamber music?
« Reply #13 on: August 15, 2021, 10:47:48 AM »
Yes, even smaller modern halls are often a bit too large for chamber music. Depending where one lives one might be able to attend student concerts or so in smaller venues. Not quite living room size, but about the middle between modern large concert hall and living room or so, seating from a few score to a couple of hundred people.
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Offline Mandryka

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Re: How do you approach listening to chamber music?
« Reply #14 on: August 15, 2021, 06:56:35 PM »
Another point about timbre. Timbre is quite an important aspect of music in the late 20th century, for some composers it is more a focus than melody or functional harmony. There are string quartets which are partly explorations of the colour possibilities of string instruments- things like Kagel 1, Holliger 1, Lachenmann 2, Radulescu 5.
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Re: How do you approach listening to chamber music?
« Reply #15 on: August 15, 2021, 07:02:44 PM »
Same here. I also like chamber music for its less dynamic nature. The loudness level varies less than with orchestral music which makes is easier to listen to. Dynamic orchestral music is difficult volume-wise. If the volume is too high, the loudest parts make you deaf. If the volume is too low, the quiet parts are inaudible.

My favorite type of chamber music is string instrument(s) + piano: Music for Violin/Viola/Cello and Piano, Piano Trios, Piano Quartets, Piano Quintets etc. The sound of piano and string instruments complement each other nicely and I think the combination provides large enough selection of timbral colour.

That said, I enjoy classical music from solo intrument music to the largests orchestral/choral works, from J. S. Bach's Solo Cello Suites to Beethoven's String Quartets to Elgar's large oratorios.

It is all about adjusting/calibrationg your expectations of the "sonic color space" for each type of music.

I can only nod my head along with your own, Poju. 8)
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Online Que

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Re: How do you approach listening to chamber music?
« Reply #16 on: August 15, 2021, 09:34:37 PM »
So, to the point of the thread...those of you more experienced in listening to string quartets and the like...how exactly do you listen to them? What attracts you to those pieces? For me, if the timbre is lost, either there's got to me an instant-hit melody to warm to, or wild extended techniques to keep the interest up beyond the standard methods of playing string instruments.

As mentioned by several before me, chamber music is of a different nature and has different qualities to offer to the listener. Same with vocal music.
This is something you might gradually develop a taste and an ear for, or not.
Most Classical music lovers I know started off with orchestral music, and then branched out to other genres.

Don't force it. Instead of a run of the entire cycle of LvB SQ's, start with something that appeals to you: like a larger ensemble or something by a composer you really like.
« Last Edit: August 16, 2021, 02:12:02 AM by Que »

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Re: How do you approach listening to chamber music?
« Reply #17 on: August 16, 2021, 02:11:09 AM »
The short answer is that I listen to chamber music the same way I listen to orchestral music (or solo piano music for that matter). When I listen to music I am primarily interested in melody, harmony, counterpoint, dissonance/consonance, thematic development/structure, rhythm. I think it is more natural to say that I listen differently to extended, structured pieces (symphonies, string quartets, piano trios, piano sonatas, etc) free-form pieces (tone poems, fantasias) or miniatures (nocturnes, preludes, impromptus, etc). The different size and nature of the ensemble gives the composer and performer a different toolkit for embodying the 'voices' in the piece. Then different ensembles types each have their own strengths and limitations - the immediacy and clarity of a string quartet, the sensuousness of a string orchestra, the diverse colors of a full orchestra, the aura of a piano. Some music is irrevocably tied to the instrument (could you ever transcript a late Faure piano piece for orchestra?) and in other cases the same music can be realized in a different ensemble (the Brahms Haydn variations, written for two Pianos, then orchestrated). I don't find I must make a special effort to listen to one type of ensemble rather than another.

Offline Iota

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Re: How do you approach listening to chamber music?
« Reply #18 on: August 16, 2021, 03:58:22 AM »
I agree with many of the previous comments and think Jo498's listening list in #5363 an excellent idea.

For me a big draw in chamber music is simply that there's less ballast, things tend to be clearer, more agile, more transparent. A spider's web where each drop of dew carries great significance, rather than the orchestrally glittering cascades of a Trevi Fountain or a Niagara Falls, say.
 
At this point in my life it's an aesthetic I find myself generally more in sympathy with, though I still love many large scale works too. For me chamber and orchestral do generally feel like different worlds rather than different sides of the same coin. And with chamber there's also a feeling of listening to the composer talking directly to you, rather than hearing them giving a speech, particularly so with string quartets for some reason I find. Perhaps there is a bit of a culture with SQ writing to 'tell it like it is'. Anyway for me that power of that directness can have a big impact.

Offline aukhawk

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Re: How do you approach listening to chamber music?
« Reply #19 on: August 16, 2021, 04:15:18 AM »
Same here. I also like chamber music for its less dynamic nature. The loudness level varies less than with orchestral music which makes is easier to listen to. Dynamic orchestral music is difficult volume-wise. If the volume is too high, the loudest parts make you deaf. If the volume is too low, the quiet parts are inaudible.

Completely agree.  Quite simply, with a group such as a string quartet the listener has a chance (if everything is good) of sensing that the performers are actually there in the room.  This is patently impossible with a full orchestra or even a solo concert grand piano.  For this reaon I increasingly prefer to listen to string quartet music, and if I want solo piano music I prefer recordings of period pianos with their less powerful sound.

However ...

Quote
My favorite type of chamber music is string instrument(s) + piano: Music for Violin/Viola/Cello and Piano, Piano Trios, Piano Quartets, Piano Quintets etc. The sound of piano and string instruments complement each other nicely and I think the combination provides large enough selection of timbral colour.

... here I differ, I regard the piano and solo instuments from the violin family as fundamentally incompatible, so that equal-partnersip ensembles such as Violin Sonata, Cello Sonata and to a lesser extent Piano Trio, are an unpleasant listen to me.  An exception may be where the violinist exploits the natural tension between her instrument and the piano, to creative effect.  An example of where I think this is successfully done, is Isobel Faust's recording of the Debussy Violin Sonata (with Melnikov) where she is magnificently edgy in places.