Written by Matthew Parsons and Robert Rowat
The best part of our job here at CBC Classical is listening to new albums, especially the ones from the Canadian artists we follow year in and year out.
Despite the changing times for the music industry, classical musicians are still committed to making recordings, whether it's to introduce the public to new works, document a particularly memorable performance or add to the existing catalogue. And 2015 has been a good year.
Our 10 best classical releases of 2015 — presented in the gallery above — range from big, bold statements to outstanding interpretations of familiar repertoire. And if there's a key takeaway from this list, it's that those two qualities need not be mutually exclusive.
Bear in mind that 10 is a very small number; there are plenty of fantastic recordings that couldn't make it onto this list.
10. Orchestre Métropolitain and Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Mahler 10 (ATMA)
Yannick Nézet-Séguin can work anywhere in the world, and does. But he still comes home to the Orchestre Métropolitain to record big-ticket rep like Bruckner and Mahler.
This disc does what any recording of Mahler's unfinished 10th symphony ideally should: it reminds us that even in its fragmented, posthumously completed state, this piece is every bit as worthwhile as the rest of Mahler's oeuvre. — Matthew Parsons
9. Taktus, Glass Houses for Marimba (Centrediscs)
The percussion duo Taktus wasn't even on our radar until Centrediscs dropped this sonic bomb in July, and now we're superfans.
The album is a loving and accomplished tribute to composer Ann Southam, whose collection of solo piano pieces, Glass Houses, has quickly become a modern classic. Taktus's arrangements for two marimbas — approved by the composer before her death in 2010 — bring the pieces into a new light.
What will Taktus do next? We're dying to find out. — Robert Rowat
8. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Diana Damrau, Anna Prohaska, Rolando Villazón, Paul Schweinester, Franz-Josef Selig, Thomas Quasthoff, Mozart: Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Deutsche Grammophon)
Not surprisingly, Nézet-Séguin graces our list twice, this time with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and his usual cohort of soloists for the third instalment in their Mozart opera series for Deutsche Grammophon. If you're only going to own one recording of the bubbly, wacko Entführung, this should be it.
Damrau owns Konstanze, Prohaska's Blonde has to be heard to be believed, Villazón is a full-throated Belmonte and Selig's Osmin is equal parts creep and cartoon. And while they shine on their own, it's as an ensemble that they distinguish themselves above other recorded casts, thanks to the infectious good humour and intelligence of YNS on the podium. — RR
7. Paul Merkelo, Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, Kent Nagano, French Trumpet Concertos (Analekta)
Taken mostly from a single, incredibly taxing live concert, Paul Merkelo's recording of three of the hardest pieces ever written for the trumpet is more than just a series of impressive technical high-jumps. (Though it is certainly that.) Merkelo zooms past the challenges of this rep and makes a compelling case for it as music. Meanwhile, the Ravel-reminiscent orchestrations of these concertos finds the OSM thoroughly in their element.
This isn't just for trumpet music enthusiasts — anybody who likes 20th-century French music should hear this. — MP
6. Janina Fialkowska, Grieg: Lyric Pieces (ATMA)
It was a good year for Grieg fans. We got recordings of his music from the likes of Joseph Moog, Hannu Lintu and Steven Isserlis and Hough. But Fialkowska's recording of 25 of Grieg's irresistible piano miniatures is the leader of the pack.
There's no shortage of great recordings of these pieces. But if you prefer your Grieg with an easy lilt, Fialkowska is the only game in town. — MP
5. Cecilia String Quartet, Mendelssohn: Op. 44, Nos. 1 & 2 (Analekta)
Last we heard from the Cecilias on record, they were playing Mozart concertos in chamber arrangements. Before that, they were exploring the fringes of the repertory on a disc of Janáček, Webern and Berg. This year's release sees them returning from left field for a straight-ahead performance of two Mendelssohn quartets.
But don't let the programming choices fool you: this is anything but unadventurous. From the first seconds of the disc, the Cecilia Quartet goes for broke. There is no point on this recording when it's possible to stop paying attention. — MP
4. Ensemble Caprice and Matthias Maute, Chaconne (Analekta)
If only more musicians had the impulse toward eclecticism that Matthias Maute and Ensemble Caprice have. This recording is built around a very specific theme: the chaconne, a popular musical form in the baroque era. But that theme takes Caprice madly off in totally unpredictable directions.
Works by baroque masters like Monteverdi and Vivaldi collide with new arrangements of 16th-century Czech folk songs. Energetic dances by Falconieri are interspersed with Maute's original chaconnes for three voices. And it's all topped off by an ingenious arrangement of Bach's famous solo violin chaconne for two recorders and baroque cello.
Yet none of this feels like novelty for novelty's sake. It's a coherent package, featuring some really wonderful playing. — MP
3. Louis Lortie, Hélène Mercier, Edward Gardner, BBC Philharmonic, Poulenc: Piano Concertos, Aubade (Chandos)
God bless Poulenc for resisting the compositional trends of his time and just doing his own thing, and ditto Lortie for getting to the heart of Poulenc's unique brand of modernism on his astonishing new album.
Poulenc called his 1949 Concerto for Piano and Orchestra "a light concerto, a kind of souvenir of Paris," but it's a mistake to toss it off as a bon bon and Lortie knows it, underscoring all the prettiness with delicious irony.
The BBC Phil under Gardner is lush, and first chairs give standout solos (pay special attention to Aubade.) And when Lortie's longtime partner, Hélène Mercier, joins in for the Concerto for Two Pianos and some chamber music, their uncanny complicity and 20 fingers seem to conjure Poulenc's ghost. — RR
2. Afiara Quartet feat. Skratch Bastid, Spin Cycle (Centrediscs)
It could have been a disaster. When the Afiara Quartet announced their intention to collaborate with a DJ, the more cynical among us might well have run for the hills. These sorts of headline-grabbing genre fusions seem to crash and burn so frequently.
But Spin Cycle proves decisively that these kinds of projects can move beyond mere gimmickry into properly progressive territory.
The success of this album starts with its raw material. The new works that Afiara commissioned for this project — from four emerging Toronto composers — can all stand independently as satisfying pieces of chamber music. But it's the total commitment to that material, from both the Afiara Quartet and DJ Skratch Bastid, that makes Spin Cycle one of the best records of the year. — MP
1. Charles Richard-Hamelin, Chopin: Sonata No. 3, Polonaise-Fantaisie, Nocturnes (Analekta)
What a year it has been for pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin. When he released his debut album in September — all Chopin — could anyone have predicted the events that would unfold over the following month?
In October, he led an impressive Canadian contingent at the 17th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, receiving the silver medal and the prize for best performance of a Chopin sonata.
In a way, his debut album — beautifully recorded by the crew at Analekta Records — has become a souvenir of this exciting time in Richard-Hamelin's young career, which is now taking off like a rocket. — RR