Fall semester of my undergrad sophomore year. Karl Hinterbichler, trombone professor and my brass quintet coach at the University of New Mexico (UNM), suggests I attend the workshop to be given by members of the Beaux Arts Trio the following day. Mind you I’m a 19-year-old trumpet geek with little if any familiarity of classical music that doesn’t involve brass instruments and perilously high volume. Such is the folly of youth … As much as I protest Hinterbichler finally insists that I go, threatening some vague form of punitive action if I don’t show up. The next morning I sulked in shortly before start time as Lenny Felberg, the UNM violin professor, practically fell over himself introducing the three members of the trio to the large gathering: Menahem Pressler on piano, Isadore Cohen on violin, and Bernard Greenhouse on cello. In addition to the three regulars a fourth, Walter Trampler on viola, was also introduced and for good reason; the trio had just recorded the Brahms piano quartets and was performing them on tour.
After preliminary remarks the four guests split up into different rooms to conduct seminars for the students. I managed to see bits of all four sessions and was immediately impressed by the level of coaching but even more impressed when each of the pros went to their respective instruments and ripped off the most difficult passage of whatever the poor student was struggling with at the moment. This, I thought, was brilliant stuff. To be sure there were outstanding people on the UNM faculty but nothing compared to the coaching and playing I was observing. It would only get better.
At the end of the sessions the entire group reassembled in the original rehearsal studio for Q&A and closing remarks. I got there early and found a seat next to the piano eager to glean anything else I possibly could. After taking questions the four turned to each other and agreed to play something for us. They decided on the last movement of the Brahms g-minor quartet, Op. 25, titled “Rondo alla Zingarese.” The movement, nicknamed “gypsy rondo,” can only be described as virtuosic and is usually performed at light speed. Menahem Pressler sat down at the piano literally an arm’s length away from me. I clearly remember him smiling at me, opening the music to the appropriate page, and then lightning striking. What followed was like being at ground zero next to a world class pianist kicking ass on an incredibly difficult piece. But it wasn’t just Pressler, it was the energy and playing of the entire group not to mention some of the most amazing music I’d ever heard. I’m quite sure I listened to the entire eight minutes of the movement with my mouth agape. It goes without saying that later that evening I weaseled my way into the recital hall sans ticket where the group performed not one but all three of the Brahms piano quartets.
The next day I found myself in Hinterbichler’s office blathering away like an idiot in much the same crazed fashion as a groupie stumbling upon all the members of their favorite band in an all-night diner. Hinterbichler smiled and listened patiently. Much to his credit he never once said anything remotely close to, “I told you so.” From then on music would never be the same. I had crossed over from impact to nuance and in doing so discovered an entirely new universe of incredible music I never knew existed. In wine-speak, I had been transfixed by my first great Burgundy or German Riesling experience and big-ass Cabernets and Zinfandels would no longer do the trick.
What is chamber music? The genre traces its roots back to the middle ages when instruments were largely used to accompany singers. Over the next several centuries compositions, both sacred and secular (secular as in not based on religious text), were written for small groups of instruments. At the same time playing instruments among friends and family in the home also grew in popularity. The high point of chamber music writing began with classical composers such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. It continued in the 19th century with romantic era composers like Brahms and Tchaikovsky and on into the 20th century with works by Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Hindemith and more. It continues to this day. In terms of instrumentation chamber music is usually scored for less than 10 players and most often makes use of piano and string instruments (violin, viola, cello and infrequently bass). Wind instruments—both woodwinds and brass—are often scored for as well.
Back to school: the following year I took a chamber music class with Dr. Susan Patrick and immersed myself in the works on the required list. I bought multiple records (yes, records) of the best pieces and memorized them. I came to believe—and still do—that many of the great composers saved their best stuff for smaller chamber works and no surprise given that keyboard was the primary instrument for practically all of them. Today, decades later, I continue to listen to recordings of chamber music almost daily. Here is a list of my personal favorite works and favorite recordings. I’ve chosen the pieces carefully wary of flagging attention spans due to an overdose of social media and technology overwhelm. But you’ll find that all are beautiful works that will handsomely reward taking the time to listen.
It’s only fitting that the three Brahms piano quartets are first on my list given they were such a formative experience for me. As mentioned above, I think Brahms’ best work involves piano and the piano quartets and the piano quintet make a strong argument for just that. In particular, the gypsy rondo movement from the g-minor quartet mentioned above, the gorgeous slow movement from the A-major quartet, and the entire c-minor quartet are superb music. Brahms’ scoring is so complex and dense it’s hard to believe that you’re just listening to four performers instead of a chamber orchestra. No surprise that the Beaux Arts Trio is my absolute favorite recording of the works despite owning another half dozen versions. You should also check out the excellent recording with Artur Rubenstein on piano and members of the Guarneri Quartet. Also give the Brahms Piano Quintet (for piano and string quartet as in two violins, viola and cello) a listen; the version with Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini and the Quartetto Italiano is my favorite recording. Mendelssohn Octet for Strings in E-flat, Op. 20
Felix Mendelssohn’s string octet in e-flat was written when the composer was just 16 years old. The work calls for two string quartets but the scoring is closer to that of a string orchestra. The four movements are filled with beautiful melodies, clever invention, and clever orchestration. This is one of my very favorite chamber works and the recording on the Phillips label with the Italian group I Musici is phenomenal. Also look for the recording by the Cleveland and Meliora Quartets on Telarc.
Beethoven wrote a great deal of chamber music to match his nine brilliant symphonies. In particular, the string quartets and piano trios written late in his career are widely considered to be among the best chamber compositions of any kind ever written. It’s difficult to single just out a few works but two stand out for me: the piano trio Op. 97 called “Archduke” and the string quartet no. 13 in B-flat, op. 130. The Archduke is a great example of Beethoven’s mature writing for chamber ensemble. The piece is filled with deceptively simple and yet universally beautiful tunes. In true Beethoven fashion the composer immediately sets to tearing the melodies apart until just simple fragments remain only to reassemble them in a new form. Know that no one has ever done that better or quite like Beethoven. The slow movement, Andante Cantabile, is a simple theme and variations but utterly beautiful. I have two favorite recordings of the Archduke: not surprisingly the Beaux Arts Trio play the work flawlessly and with great skill and polish. I also love the recording by the Suk Trio on the Denon label.Beethoven’s Op. 130 is the second of five late works that set a standard for string quartet writing that has never been surpassed. Breaking with the convention of four movements Beethoven caps off Op. 130 with a monumental sixth movement called “Grosse Fuge,” or great fugue. If not familiar, the fugue is a musical form based on theme and imitation that has existed since the early Baroque. It was usually intended for keyboard and made justly famous by J.S. Bach. But at the end of his life when Beethoven was completely deaf and slowly dying from syphilitic complications, the composer took the form and launched it far beyond the conventions of his time giving us glimpses of harmonies and writing that wouldn’t be heard again for almost a century. Hearing the Grosse Fuge for the first time is often shocking to the listener because the work is so dissonant and filled with driving, seemingly unstoppable rhythms–not unlike Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. I think it’s curious that Beethoven chose to write his great fugue not for large orchestra but as the last movement of a string quartet. You should also know that the Grosse Fuge was so controversial and poorly received that Beethoven actually withdrew it from the work after its first performance and wrote an alternate finale for the piece. He would never hear the work in its finished form as it was first performed a month after his death. Although the Grosse Fuge was published as a separate work it is usually now performed as part of the original composition. I own several different recordings of the late Beethoven quartets but the versions by the Julliard Quartet and the Alban Berg Quartet are personal favorites.
If I had to convince anyone of the merits of chamber music Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet would be it. I can’t think of a more tragically beautiful and engaging chamber work that immediately grips the full attention of the listener. Schubert’s story is all the more remarkable. In a short lifespan of less than 32 years the composer wrote over 600 songs, nine complete symphonies, various works for the church, opera, and a large collection of chamber works and solo piano music. In particular the last five years of his life are unparalleled in terms of creative musical output. His string quartet No. 14 is my favorite. Schubert wrote the work in March of 1824 after a serious illness realizing that he was dying. The piece is named for the theme and variations of the second movement taken from a lied (song) of the same name the composer wrote in 1817. But the theme of death can be felt throughout the work in terms of the key–d-minor–and the intensity and pathos of the writing. As for recordings, the versions by the Tokyo Quartet and Emerson Quartet are both outstanding. A must listen! Stravinsky: Octet for Winds
As a former trumpet player I had to include a non-string piece in the list and this was an easy choice. Stravinsky’s wind octet was completed in 1923 and scored for flute, clarinet (in A and B-flat), two bassoons, two trumpets, tenor trombone, and bass trombone. The work marks the beginning of the composer’s departure from what is now called the “Russian primitivism” of his early career to “neoclassicism” in which Stravinsky made use of harmonies, form and melodies from the classical period. The composer conducted the premiere of the octet in October 1923 with immediate strong criticism from press and fellow composers alike. The press called it “a mess of 18th-century mannerisms.” But to listen to the work now is to marvel at Stravinsky’s invention and ability to make use of older forms while remaining completely true to his own musical identity.
As an aside, I included the Stravinsky Octet on the program for my senior recital at UNM. I mention the two keys for clarinet above for good reason; the clarinetist who performed it on my recital left his A clarinet off stage and didn’t realize he’d done so until the beginning of the last movement which features a long solo for—you guessed it—the clarinet. Needless to say, he couldn’t transpose his part down a half-step on the fly (which by the way either of us trumpet players could have done) and had to go off stage to retrieve his other clarinet. In the meantime the work ground to a halt while we waited for him to return with his much-needed A clarinet so we could finish the piece. It made for an interesting recording and I’m reminded of it every time I hear the work. As for favorite professional recordings of the octet, the one by the Boston Chamber players on Deutsche Grammaphon is by far the best. It features Armando Ghitalla, with whom I studied in grad school, playing the first trumpet part. I also highly recommend the recording with Stravinsky conducting the Columbia Chamber Orchestra.
Franz Josef Haydn was the first real innovator of string quartet composition writing 68 works for the genre over four decades. Mozart emulated Haydn’s quartet writing to the point of dedicating a portfolio of six quartets to him in 1785. But Mozart’s two later quartets in D, numbers 20 (K499) and 21 (K575), are favorites. Both are filled with gorgeous melodies and invention that will satisfy the novice or expert alike. The Alban Berg Quartet’s recording on EMI is my favorite. Ravel: String Quartet
Ravel’s string quartet was the 28-year old composer’s final submission to the Prix de Rome and the Conservatoire de Paris. The work was rejected by both institutions soon after its first performance on March 5, 1904. But rather than a setback the press and notoriety from the premiere catapulted the young composer’s career. Today the quartet is among the most widely performed chamber works. I can’t think of a more beautiful, sensual work for strings. The second movement featuring pizzicato string playing (as in plucking and not bowing the strings) is innovative and simply great stuff. My favorite recordings of the work—which is usually paired with the equally outstanding Debussy string quartet–are by the Tokyo Quartet and the Sequoia Quartet.