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Top 10 Chamber Music CDs to Start Your Classical Music CD and MP3 Collection

The term "chamber music" refers to any piece written for an ensemble that has only one instrument or voice per part. (In orchestral music, by contrast, several instruments play the same part.) Chamber ensembles can range in size from one instrument (e.g. a solo sonata) to many. By far the most abundant form is the string quartet, but other popular chamber music ensembles are piano and strings, more than four strings, or a solo instrument with piano accompaniment.

Chamber music is usually written for amateurs to play privately at home or for an ensemble performing before a small audience. Given this intimate setting, chamber music tends to be more sublime and personal than orchestral music played in large concert halls. The best chamber music fully bares the composer's emotions; this is especially true of the chamber music of Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms.

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1 Brahms: Piano Trio No. 1 -- Eroica Trio
A chamber masterpiece 25 years in the making. Review...

2 Shostakovich: Piano Trio No. 2 -- Gidon Kremer, Misha Maisky, Martha Argerich
Memorializing a dear friend. Review...

3 Bach: Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin -- Henryk Szeryng
Making a single instrument sound like four. Review...

4 Dvorák: Piano Quintet -- Takács String Quartet, Andreas Haefliger
Czech nationalism embedded in a Viennese masterpiece. Review...

5 Schubert: String Quintet -- Emerson String Quartet, Mstislav Rostropovich
Chamber music on a symphonic scale. Review...

6 Mozart: Clarinet Quintet -- Antony Pay, ASMF Chamber Ensemble
Chamber music with a kick. Review...

7 Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht -- Hollywood String Quartet
The founder of Modernism looks back to Brahms. Review...

8 Mendelssohn: Octet -- Hausmusik
The greatest work ever written by a teenager. Review...

9 Monteverdi: Madrigals, Book VIII -- Consort of Musicke
Madrigals of War and Love. Review...

10 Franck: Violin Sonata -- Kyung-Wha Chung, Radu Lupu
Romantic music with a French flair. Review...

11 Brahms: Piano Quartets -- Beaux Arts Trio
Chamber music that Brahms himself thought was his best. Review...


Johannes Brahms: Piano Trio No. 1 in B major, Op. 8
Eroica Trio

This trio is a perfect example of Johannes Brahms's intense perfectionist streak -- he spent more than 35 years writing and revising it! When he finally finished, the result was one of the all-time masterpieces of chamber music. Brahms excels at taking a simple thread of melody and weaving it into an ever-larger tapestry of sound. A perfect example is the opening theme of the first movement, which starts simply enough in the piano, is joined by the cello and then the violin, and builds to an impassioned climax. The Eroica Trio, a young ensemble comprised of three extremely talented (and in our opinion extremely attractive) women, perfectly capture Brahms's passion, giving a performance that is the equal of classic recordings such as Isaac Stern's or Artur Rubinstein's.

Similar works: Top 10 Brahms, Top 10 Romantic
Dmitri Shostakovich: Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67
Martha Argerich, piano; Gidon Kremer, violin; Mischa Maisky, cello

Shostakovich wrote his second piano trio in 1944 as a memorial to his close friend Ivan Sollertinsky, who had died the previous winter. The trio begins with the cello playing eerily high notes, then the piano and violin join in below. Working together, the three create a picture of abject mourning. The second movement is a lively scherzo, while the third returns to the mournful attitude with a set of variations over a repeated bass line. The final movement brings the work to a close with several restatements of its own themes in different forms, as well as recollections of the earlier movements. This recording brings together three of today's superstar musicians in an exciting live performance, and also includes an excellent rendition of Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio.

Similar works: Top 10 Twentieth Century
Johann Sebastian Bach: Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, BWV 1001-1006
Henryk Szeryng, violin

The essence of the Baroque style is counterpoint, two or more melodies sounding simultaneously. This is feasible in a multi-instrument ensemble, much more difficult on the keyboard, and next to impossible on the violin, which is usually only asked to play a single melody. Yet in these six amazing works, Bach asks the violin to sound like up to four different instruments playing at the same time, and does it in a way that sounds completely natural to the instrument. The chaconne from the Partita No. 2 and the fugue from the Sonata No. 3 are particularly noteworthy. Henryk Szeryng makes these extremely difficult pieces sound easy, untangling even the densest contrapuntal lines.

Similar works: Top 10 Bach, Top 10 Baroque
Antonín Dvorák: Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 81
Takács String Quartet, Andreas Haefliger, piano

Though his native Bohemia was under the Austrian crown for his entire life, Antonín Dvorák managed to express nationalistic sentiment through his music. The slow movement of this Piano Quintet is a dumka, a melancholy Czech ballad, while the third movement is a furiant, a fast native dance. The outer movements are firmly in the Viennese tradition and show Dvorák at his best. The Takács Quartet's CD includes a fresh performance of the Dvorák quintet as well as another work written in a similar vein, the Quartet No. 10 in E-flat.

Similar works: Top 10 Chamber Music
Franz Schubert: String Quintet in C major, D. 956
Emerson String Quartet, Mstislav Rostropovich, cello

Unlike his late string quartets, which depict a uniformly bleak landscape, Schubert's great string quintet celebrates life to the fullest. The addition of the extra cello to the usual string quartet allows Schubert to give the cello some of the most exquisite melodic lines ever written. The quintet is full of captivating melodies and surprising harmonic twists, and even though it is nearly an hour long it still feels too short. Mstislav Rostropovich and the Emerson String Quartet give an intensely passionate performance.

Similar works: Top 10 Schubert, Top 10 Romantic
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Clarinet Quintet in A major, K. 581
Antony Pay, clarinet; Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble

In addition to his Clarinet Concerto, Mozart wrote a much more intimate Clarinet Quintet for his friend Anton Stadler. Whereas in the concerto the clarinet is the focus of attention, in the quintet the woodwind takes on a role equivalent to that of the strings, and the piece plays out as a discourse among five equals. Antony Pay and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble give a convincing peformance, and this mid-priced CD includes the quintet as well as two other charming chamber works for wind and strings.

Similar works: Top 10 Mozart, Top 10 Classical
Arnold Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4
Hollywood String Quartet, Alvin Dinkin, viola; Kurt Reher, cello

Though he became famous as a revolutionary composer who broke all the accepted rules of harmony, Arnold Schoenberg saw himself as the next composer in a line extending from Mozart to Beethoven to Brahms. This string sextet, one of Schoenberg's early works, takes its inspiration from Brahms and is written in a lush late Romantic style. Entitled "Transfigured Night" after a poem by Richard Dehmel, the music depicts a discussion between two lovers in which the woman confesses she is pregnant with another man's child. The music is powerful and ultimately comes to a happy conclusion, though there are moments in the middle that foreshadow Schonberg's dissonant later works. The Hollywood Quartet so impressed Schoenberg with their performance that he offered to write the liner notes for the recording. With an equally legendary performance of Schubert's String Quintet, this is a must-have CD for any chamber music fan.

Similar works: Top 10 Twentieth Century
Felix Mendelssohn: Octet in E-flat Major, Op. 20

Though Mozart is the most famous child prodigy composer, Mendelssohn's Octet is the greatest work ever composed by a teenager -- the precocious youth wrote it when he was just sixteen years old. . Mendelssohn was one of the major proponents of the "Bach revival" of the early nineteenth century, and his admiration for Bach's counterpoint manifests itself in the octet's finale, an eight-part fugue that spins along at breakneck speed. But the most celebrated movement is the third, a quiet fantasy of which the scholar Donald Tovey said, "eight string players might easily practise it for a lifetime without coming to an end of their delight in producing its marvels of tone-colour." The British ensemble Hausmusik produce marvels of their own on this super-bargain set that also includes Mendelssohn's two charming string quintets and a string quartet.

Similar works: Top 10 Romantic
Claudio Monteverdi: Madrigals, Book VIII
Consort of Musicke, Anthony Rooley, conductor

At the time they were written, Claudio Monteverdi's nine books of madrigals set a new standard for expressiveness in music. Mondeverdi's madrigal music brings to life the poetry it underlies, and none does so better than the eighth book, published in 1638. The book, entitled "Madrigals of War and Love," is split into two halves. The first half contains fierce war poetry, highlighted by "Il Combattimento de Tancredi et Clorinda," the story of two warriors in love with each other; Monteverdi's dramatic music depicts horses galloping and armies clashing. The second half consists of love poems, the most famous of which is the "Lamento della ninfa." The collection illustrates Monteverdi's innovative style in instrumental as well as vocal writing. This super-bargain set (2 CDs for less than one full-priced CD) is another must-have for anyone's collection.

Similar works: Top 10 Renaissance
César Franck: Violin Sonata in A major
Kyung-Wha Chung, violin; Radu Lupu, piano

Although he was overshadowed in Germany and Austria by Brahms and Wagner, the Belgian-born César Franck was the dominant force in French music in the middle of the nineteenth century. Franck's sonorities are worlds away from those of Brahms, and his influence can be felt strongly in the music of Debussy and Ravel. Franck wrote this sonata in 1886 for the great violinist Eugène Ysaÿe. The premiere took place in an art gallery that was so dark that Ysaÿe had to play the sonata mostly from memory! The sonata features what Franck called his "cyclical method," in which themes recur identically or become transformed throughout the whole piece. Kyung-Wha Chung and Radu Lupu's superb performance comes on a mid-priced CD packed with great French chamber music.

Similar works: Top 10 Romantic
Johannes Brahms: Piano Quartets Nos. 1-3
Beaux Arts Trio; Walter Trampler, viola

Brahms' Piano Quartets are among his most popular compositions, and the composer himself regarded them as noteworthy: Brahms selected the Quartet No. 1 for his Vienna debut in 1862, and the Viennese public were deeply impressed. The quartet's first movement is based upon a simple four-note theme that is spun out with ever-increasing elaboration. The second movement is cloaked in a romantic aura of mystery, while the finale is an exciting "Hungarian Rondo." The Third Quartet was composed at the same time as the first two but only published in 1875 after extensive revision. The composition is tragic on a grand scale, most notably in the lyrical slow movement. The Beaux Arts Trio (joined by Walter Trampler on viola) give invigorating performances of the three quartets, and this two-for-one set also includes Brahms's second Piano Trio..

Similar works: Top 10 Brahms, Top 10 Romantic