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Something I've always felt is that it is possible to get away with having a much smaller arrangement in live music than it is in recorded music. This is especially common in folk music.

I don't know if anyone else has this experience.

Take that old Sea Shanty that has become a meme. Compare two recordings.

First, the Nathan Evans "original" one.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WHbU6s0jANc  

Now, Santiano's recording.

To my ears, the Santiano version is much more suitable for listening. Mainly because it's a complete arrangement with a full accompaniment, drums and bassline. The Evans version is much more boring and "empty"; just a guy singing and a steady quarter note pulse in the percussion.

Live, I would have no problem listening to the Nathan Evans version, however. If I were actually there listening to him perform it, or I was actually on a ship singing this shanty and working, the lack of a full ensemble wouldn't really bother me.

I have this experience with basically every genre. At medieval faires, they always have ensembles of musicians that just consist of maybe a recorder, lute, and drum. It's great to go see those musicians perform, but I can't stand listening to recordings that lack the bassline. Which is why I prefer bands like Deloraine over bands that try to be more period authentic.

I could see a solo violinist play, but to merely listen to a recording of that performance would feel incomplete to me.

I'm not sure why this is or if I'm alone in it.

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Yes, I’ve noticed that too. I’ve even noticed it within live recordings, especially those of Mozart’s pieces. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is a good example of what I’m talking about. It was originally for a string orchestra, but I hear many, many recordings with quartets and I’ve even seen smaller ensembles all the way down to solo take it on. Here are some examples of what I mean:

String Orchestra ensemble 

String Quartet ensemble(okay, so it’s a quintet in this video, point is, I’ve seen quartets play this, quite often actually)

And I can’t seem to find videos of performances of the entire piece for trio or smaller. Too bad, because I’ve seen it done.

For me, what I get with Mozart and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is this:

Quote

The string quartet is quite enough for this 4 part piece, I don’t need the orchestra. Do I want the orchestra? Maybe a symphony orchestra, but a string orchestra, eh, it depends.

 

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An ensemble is what you make it but has to be small so that the physical actions of players become part of the performance and the audience experience. An orchestra is a machine; an ensemble is a group of players with their actions, facial expressions, music that catch the audience's eye. A rock or pop band typifies this.

Just an opinion but when the numbers go above about 15 it starts to feel more like an orchestra. Once lockdown ends I hope to resume with an ensemble that numbers between 6 and 10 depending what's going on.

A good way to feel the contrast is Schoenberg's Verklaerte Nacht played as a Sextet compared with his revamp for String Orchestra. (The best recording of the latter I've heard was Zubin Mehta's.) There are probably youtube renderings but these works need to be attended live.

Edited by Quinn
because I can. - Art.
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