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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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On 5/4/2021 at 2:35 AM, Quinn said:

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.

 

I think that's a good point about the orchestra.

The flipside of my OP is that an ensemble can be too big. I increasingly think the Symphony Orchestra is unnecessarily large.

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3 minutes ago, AngelCityOutlaw said:

I think that's a good point about the orchestra.

The flipside of my OP is that an ensemble can be too big. I increasingly think the Symphony Orchestra is unnecessarily large.

 

I feel the same way about the String Orchestra vs the String Quartet, especially in Classical Era works like Eine Kleine Nachtmusik that were originally written for String Orchestra. It is just 4 part writing you are doing in the String Orchestra, similar to SATB choral writing in a way. A String Orchestra feels unnecessary when a Quartet can easily play that same piece. Chamber orchestra with woodwinds like in some symphony recordings, I'm fine with. Symphony orchestra, I'm fine with no matter the size, be it 60 violins or 200 violins, I don't care, as long as it has a good balance. And I actually kind of prefer the larger orchestras with more auxiliary woodwinds and more brass. But a String Orchestra? No thank you, I'd rather hear it from a String Quartet, a Quartet is perfectly capable of playing it, so why bother with the String Orchestra in the first place? And it will sound more expressive coming from the String Quartet than the String Orchestra as well.

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About the string orchestra vs. string quartet debate - I think the string orchestra yields a completely different tone color than individual string instruments in a quartet and I tend to prefer the string orchestra.  The combination of string instruments in an orchestra yields a whole that's somehow greater than the sum of it's parts - a more "padded" and subtle sound.  Let's not also forget that the string orchestra has double basses which expand the orchestra's range considerably in comparison to a quartet.  Also, the balance in an orchestra is better in my opinion as violins in a string quartet tend to dominate and even if you stick a contrabass into the quartet making it a quintet, the instrument doesn't really have a comparable dynamic range on it's own (when doubled however, I think this problem is remedied a bit).  Anyways - a string orchestra is more versatile dynamically and in it's range is my point.

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5 hours ago, PeterthePapercomPoser said:

About the string orchestra vs. string quartet debate - I think the string orchestra yields a completely different tone color than individual string instruments in a quartet and I tend to prefer the string orchestra.  The combination of string instruments in an orchestra yields a whole that's somehow greater than the sum of it's parts - a more "padded" and subtle sound.  Let's not also forget that the string orchestra has double basses which expand the orchestra's range considerably in comparison to a quartet.  Also, the balance in an orchestra is better in my opinion as violins in a string quartet tend to dominate and even if you stick a contrabass into the quartet making it a quintet, the instrument doesn't really have a comparable dynamic range on it's own (when doubled however, I think this problem is remedied a bit).  Anyways - a string orchestra is more versatile dynamically and in it's range is my point.

 

You do have a good point that the violins tend to be more dominant in a quartet, because it is a 1:1 ratio of Violins to other instruments, but I still prefer the increased expressivity that comes with the string quartet, and most quartets I hear are pretty well balanced anyway, especially in Mozart, be it they are playing a quartet piece or a piece originally for string orchestra. But even in say Brahms or later composers I still hear a pretty good balance between the instruments.

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The string orchestra sounds good because of phasing. It's actually, aside from guitars, basically one of the only ensembles that benefits from phasing.

It's for this reason I don't necessarily think String Quartet vs String Orchestra is the best example. Especially since, in both cases, you can still have the same number of parts, just a different number of players per part.

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3 hours ago, AngelCityOutlaw said:

It's for this reason I don't necessarily think String Quartet vs String Orchestra is the best example. Especially since, in both cases, you can still have the same number of parts, just a different number of players per part

But that's exactly my point, they are both in 4 parts and expressivity is important. Balance is one thing, but if you don't have the expression, you are going nowhere fast. The quartet can be and often is more expressive than the orchestra in part because it is a quartet and there is more freedom for expression in a quartet than an orchestra. Not saying the orchestra can't be expressive, just saying that the expressivity of the quartet is higher.

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