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The 30 best Canadian classical recordings ever

Editorial Staff

Written and compiled by Denise BallMichael Morreale, Matthew Parsons and Grant Rowledge.

What is the greatest Canadian classical recording ever made? CBC Radio 2's In Concertwants to take you on a tour of 30 of the best.

The list is as diverse as Canada is wide, with repertoire ranging from orchestral masterpieces to lesser-known piano gems, and from a Renaissance choral work to a uniquely Canadian composition by a living composer. Many of these recordings were vehicles that introduced Canada's finest performers to the world. Others may have sold fewer copies but capture an important performance, event or piece. They were released as far back as 1955 — Glenn Gould's career-launching first recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations — and include two recordings as recent as 2014.

Read the list below for the complete list of the 30 best Canadian classical recordings ever.

CBC Radio 2's In Concert is counting down the best Canadian recordings ever made.

Album: Schubert and Beethoven (Bridge Records, 2011)
Artist: New Orford String Quartet

Formed in 2009 at the Orford Arts Centre, this remarkable foursome is made up of principal players from the Montreal and Toronto symphonies. They took on the mantle of their illustrious predecessor, the Orford String Quartet (1965–1991), and quickly became known for polished, intelligent performances. This impressive debut disc put the New Orfords firmly in the front ranks of Canadian string quartets — of any era. — Denise Ball

Album: Respighi: Pines of Rome, Feste Romane, Fountains of Rome (Decca, 1983)
Artists: Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Charles Dutoit

Audiophiles, this one's for you. The orchestra positively shimmers in this perfectly balanced, exquisitely engineered recording. Dutoit leads the orchestra in an exhilarating performance, exploiting the full range of brilliant orchestral effects and bold colours with panache. Crank it up — way up —  and savour the sound. — DB

Album: Clear (ATMA, 1999)
Artist: Musica Intima

Music Intima is clearly a different kind of choral ensemble. For more than 20 years, this eight-member, conductorless collective from Vancouver has forged a reputation for performing with a level of artistry that results from the deep personal commitment of each and every singer in the group. Just listen to Clear, a best-seller that combines familiar favourites by Elgar and Dvorak with songs by Gerald Finzi based on poems by Robert Bridges. Pure vocal perfection. —DB

Album: Glass Houses Revisited (Centrediscs, 2014)
Artist: Christina Petrowska Quilico

This recording is the result of an extended collaboration — and friendship — between the distinguished Canadian composer Ann Southam and her most devoted interpreter, pianist Christina Petrowska Quilico. Petrowska Quilico selected an assortment of pieces from Southam's 1981 Glass Houses series, then added her own spin with the composer's blessing. She describes them as "fiendishly difficult études" played at breakneck speed. Petrowska Quilico manages the technical demands with supreme virtuosity and creates a complex sound tapestry that pays personal tribute to one of Canada's most engaging musical figures. — DB

Album: Chimera (Centrediscs, 1991)
Artists: Judy Loman, Orford String Quartet

Murray Schafer writes music that defies categorization. His works blend theatre and dance, ritual and magic. His epic pieces are often performed in outdoor settings — on lakes and in forests — and celebrate the mystery of the Canadian landscape. This is a more intimate undertaking, written in 1979 for the outstanding Toronto harpist Judy Loman. The Crown of Ariadne, which also features the original Orford String Quartet, remains grounded in mythology. Devilishly difficult for the harpist, it's full of vibrant percussive effects and stands as a rich testament to Schafer's — and Loman's — artistry. — DB

Album: Beethoven: Piano Trios (Analekta, 2010)
Artist: Gryphon Trio

The Gryphon Trio is a serious overachiever on the Canadian classical music scene. Since 1993, this Toronto-based ensemble has done it all — performing, teaching, touring, commissioning, recording and running festivals — without breaking a sweat. It's one thing to do a lot; it's another to do it well, and over the past couple of decades the Gryphons have been one of the most admired chamber groups in the country. This Juno-winning recording is one in a series of all-Beethoven releases on the Analekta label, and shows why this esteemed Canadian ensemble's so highly regarded at home and abroad. — DB

Album: Along the Road to Bethlehem (CBC Records, 1995)
Artists: Toronto Children's Chorus, Jean Ashworth Bartle

This is a holiday classic with stellar selection of mostly unfamiliar carols as well as a musical fable called The Last Straw by Ruth Watson Henderson. Here, the great Canadian tenor Ben Heppner is resplendent in the role of a cranky, over-burdened camel on his way to greet the baby Jesus. Pass the eggnog. — DB

Album: Jacques Hétu Concertos (CBC Records, 2003)
Artist: CBC Radio Orchestra, Mario Bernardi, André Laplante, Robert Cram, Joaquin Valdepeñas, Christopher Millard

For 70 years, until budget cuts forced its demise in 2008, the CBC Radio Orchestra put the performance of Canadian music at the top of its to-do list. The orchestra commissioned hundreds of Canadian composers and left behind a treasure trove of recordings. Among the best is this Juno and Western Canadian Music Award-winning CD devoted to the music of Jacques Hétu and featuring four of this country's finest soloists. Hétu, a much celebrated Quebecois composer, wrote beautifully crafted and expressive compositions. The soloists and orchestra all deliver definitive performances. —DB

Album: Millennium Opera Gala Roy Thomson Hall (CBC Records, 2000)
Artists: Members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, Mario Bernardi, Richard Bradshaw, Richard Margison, Adrianne Pieczonka, Michael Schade, Catherine Robbin, Measha Brueggergosman, Gino Quilico, Tracy Dahl, Brett Polegato, Russell Braun, Isabel Bayrakdarian, Ben Heppner, James Westman, Frances Ginzer, Robert Pomakov, Jean Stilwell, Noel Edison

What better way to toast a new century than to invite 15 of Canada's best opera singers to share the stage on New Year's Eve with members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. On Dec. 31, 1999, maestri Mario Bernardi and Richard Bradshaw ushered in the aughts with a star-studded gala concert from Roy Thomson Hall. This live recording sparkles like a just-opened bottle of bubbly. — DB

Album: Tabuh-Tabuhan: Music of Colin McPhee (CBC Records, 1998)
Artists: Esprit Orchestra, Alex Pauk

The rich legacy of the Canadian composer Colin McPhee was little-known in Canada until 1998 when the intrepid Alex Pauk and his excellent Esprit Orchestra of Toronto released an album devoted to McPhee's music. The centrepiece of the recording is the three-movement Tabuh-Tabuhan: Toccata for Orchestra, commissioned by the National Orchestra of Mexico in 1936 after McPhee had spent several years living in Bali and absorbing the exotic rhythms of the Indonesian gamelan. The music blends Balinese gongs and cymbals and a conventional Western orchestra with mesmerizing results. — DB

Album: Mozart Requiem (Dorian Records, 2002)
Artists: Les Violons du Roy, La Chapelle du Québec, Bernard Labadie, Karina Gauvin, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, John Tessier, Nathan Berg

Some recordings are memorable because of truly great performances. There are others that stand out because of the circumstances that surround their making. Bernard Labadie's recording of the Mozart Requiem is one of those rare recordings that fall under both categories. The concert recorded here was given in a shell-shocked New York City, just after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. For their part, Les Violons du Roy, La Chapelle du Québec and the distinguished roster of Canadian soloists put everything they've got into this performance, perhaps knowing that it's what the grieving city needed. — Matthew Parsons

Album: Chopin (Chandos, 1998)
Artist: Louis Lortie

In the early '90s, Louis Lortie practically had the Juno for classical soloists on lockdown. He won the award four times in five years. This 1998 recording of Chopin preludes finds him coming off that hot streak. Lortie brings his trademark brilliance to all of Chopin's multitudinous moods: wistful, brooding, passionate, playful — he can do it all. And, Juno or no Juno, it's one of this great musician's finest moments. —MP

Album: Schumann String Quartets Nos. 1 and 3 (EMI Classics, 1999)
Artist: St. Lawrence String Quartet

They've broken out beyond Canada's borders like no other artist since Glenn Gould. Their irreverent, spontaneous approach to the classics, as well as their devotion to new music, has made them a model for what the modern-day string quartet should be. This Schumann disc — their debut — won them a Juno and was one of Canada's most prominent classical music offerings to the world. — MP

Album: Schubert Winterreise (Hyperion, 2014)
Artists: Gerald Finley, Julius Drake

Gerald Finley is one of Canada's most distinguished ambassadors to the world's opera houses. But, this distinctive baritone really shines when you strip away the sets, the characters and the orchestra. Finley's recording of Schubert's masterful song cycle Winterreise cements his place as one of the greatest living art song interpreters. Sensitively accompanied by English pianist Julius Drake, thisWinterreise feels tragic without ever veering into melodrama. — MP

Album: Handel Messiah (EMI, 1987)
Artists: Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Davis, Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, Kathleen Battle, Florence Quivar, John Aler, Samuel Ramey

Andrew Davis's Messiah is no brittle baroque affair. It's a massive steamroller of Christmas spirit. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra lumbers and swaggers their way through Handel's seasonal classic with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir dancing nimbly alongside them. Throw in a memorable performance by soprano Kathleen Battle, in top form, and you've got a recipe for a musical Christmas punch that'll leave you hungover until New Year's Day. This one's bound to get a smile out of even the humbuggiest of Scrooges. — MP

Album: Orlando di Lasso Lagrime di San Pietro (ATMA, 2010)
Artists: Studio de Musique Ancienne Montréal, Christopher Jackson

SMAM has one over on other Renaissance music ensembles: their conductor is an actual renaissance man. Christopher Jackson's achievements extend well beyond music, into education and academia. But really, everything you need to know about Jackson and his esteemed SMAM is right here on this disc. Orlando di Lasso's Lagrime di San Pietro, or "Tears of St. Peter," is one of the great masterpieces of the late 16th century. And this recording is the definitive account. — MP

Album: Chopin Concertos: Chamber Version (ATMA, 2005)
Artists: Janina Fialkowska, Chamber Players of Canada

What other pianist has the tenacity of Janina Fialkowska? In 2002, doctors removed a malignant tumour from her left arm, and it took two years for her to be able to play with it again. But by 2005, she was back in the recording studio, and the result is this stunning disc of Chopin concertos, heard in intimate chamber versions. Listen to that left hand go! — MP

Album: Beethoven: The Complete Piano Sonatas and Diabelli Variations (Analekta, 1996)
Artist: Anton Kuerti

In 1996, as far as the rest of the world was concerned, great classical music didn't come from Canada. But then out of nowhere came this complete set of Beethoven sonatas by Austrian-Canadian pianist Anton Kuerti, and it changed everything. Kuerti had been performing almost exclusively in Canada. So, for many listeners, this recording was a first glimpse at a musician who'd already been a Canadian national treasure for decades. They ate it up, and we just kept feasting our ears. — MP

Album: J.S. Bach: Violin Concertos (Sony, 1995)
Artist: Tafelmusik, Jeanne Lamon

The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra has made a lot of recordings — more than 50. They've also won a whopping nine Junos, and a generous assortment of international awards. What makes them special? Precision, transparency, restraint — all of the qualities you need to churn out one great baroque performance after another. Those qualities are on full display on this disc of Bach violin concertos, featuring musical director Jeanne Lamon as the soloist. — MP

Album: Beethoven: The Complete Quartets (Delos, 1994)
Artist: Orford String Quartet

They were a Canadian chamber music institution for a quarter-century. Coached by the great pedagogue Lorand Fenyves, the quartet formed in 1965 as a bunch of talented 20-somethings, and quickly cemented themselves as "Canada's quartet." The Orfords' traversal of Beethoven's complete string quartets is their crowning achievement, and belongs on every Canadian Beethoven fan's shelf. — MP

Album: Mahler 4 (ATMA, 2004)
Artists: Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Karina Gauvin

Yannick Nézet-Séguin must be the busiest Canadian musician alive. Nowadays, his highest profile gig is music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. But, he's also holding down top jobs with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and the Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal, where he got his start. And this all happened within the past 15 years. One listen to this Mahler recording should demonstrate why. An appearance by the always wonderful Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin doesn't hurt, either. — MP

Album: Barber, Korngold, Walton: Violin Concertos (CBC Records, 2006)
Artists: Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Bramwell Tovey, James Ehnes

If you're trying to determine who Canada's biggest classical music star is nowadays, look no further. Violinist James Ehnes has been blowing the classical world's collective mind since he made Paganini's caprices look easy on his 1995 debut recording. But it's this 2006 recording with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra that won him a Grammy and made him an indisputable star. As of 2014, Ehnes is still the king of the world. Long may he reign. — MP

Album: Affairs of the Heart (CBC Records, 2000)
Artists: CBC Radio Orchestra, Mario Bernardi, Juliette Kang, Nora Bumanis, Julia Shaw

The great Canadian composer Marjan Mozetich almost wasn't a composer at all. After failing his Royal Conservatory exam in high school, he turned his attention to a career in psychology. Thankfully, he came to his senses, and went on to write the music that appears on this essential recording by the CBC Radio Orchestra, led by Mario Bernardi. Bernardi imbues Mozetich's music with romantic lustre, especially in the glorious string orchestra suite, Postcards from the Sky. — MP

Album: Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier (Hyperion, reissued in 2007)
Artist: Angela Hewitt

Between 1994 and 2005, Angela Hewitt recorded every work for keyboard that Bach ever wrote. It's a fairly magnificent achievement, and this recording of The Well-Tempered Clavier— Bach's most utilitarian yet satisfying collection — is the crown jewel of the bunch. Hewitt's fugues are crystal clear and dance-like, and can stand alongside any Bach keyboard performance of our time. — MP

AlbumBen Heppner Sings Strauss (CBC Records, 1995)
Artist: Toronto Symphony, Andrew Davis, Ben Heppner

"Mr. Strauss hated tenors," Ben Heppner once said. "However, I have always spoken well of him." Certainly, Canada's preeminent tenor does Strauss proud on this recording. Strauss's arias can be spiky and troublesome, but Heppner wrings every ounce of music out of them. He is ably assisted by Andrew Davis and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in their second, and not final, appearance on this list. — MP

Album: Godowsky: The Complete Studies on Chopin’s Études (Hyperion, 2000)
Artist: Marc-André Hamelin

Over his 25-year recording career, pianist Marc-André Hamelin has clearly staked out his territory. He's the guy who plays the really hard stuff. The stuff of pianistic nightmares. And it doesn't get much more colossally difficult than Leopold Godowsky's Studies on Chopin's Études. Hamelin doesn’t just rise to the challenge: he soars above it. — MP

Album: Holst: The Planets (EMI, 1986)
Artists: Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Davis

In Canada, we punch well above our weight in a few classical categories: we've got an abundance of great early music ensembles; we put out a lot of great Bach; and we've produced not just one, but two great recordings of Gustav Holst's Planets. Charles Dutoit’s 1987 recording with the Montreal Symphony is a classic, but we’re giving it to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, because they got there first, in 1986. — MP

Album: Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé (Decca, 1981)
Artists: Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Choir, Charles Dutoit

The 25-year union between the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Charles Dutoit was a superheroic force for good, churning out one great recording after another. But the vibrant colours of Ravel's ballet Daphnis et Chloé find them particularly close to the centre of their wheelhouse. From the ballet's delicate, angelic opening to the all-crashing, all-banging bacchanal that concludes it, this is as magical as orchestral recordings get. — MP

Album: Bach: The Goldberg Variations (Columbia, 1955)
Artist: Glenn Gould

Gould's debut recording was to classical music what Jimi Hendrix's first album was to rock. It announced the arrival of an eccentric, hip and astonishingly virtuosic new voice — the sort of figure with the potential to change everything. In the process, it made Bach cool again. All told, Gould's 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations isn't just one of the best Canadian recordings ever; it isn't even just one of the best classical recordings ever. It's one of the best records that anybody has ever made. — MP

Album: Bach: The Goldberg Variations (Columbia, 1981)
Artist: Glenn Gould

Why are we giving Glenn Gould the two top spots on this list? Because he deserves them, that's why. It helps that he made two exceptional recordings of the same work, which neatly and poetically bookend his recording career. Gould died shortly after he cut this dramatic do-over of the Goldbergs. The contrast between the young Gould of the '55 recording and the older Gould of this one couldn't be more striking. Where young Gould capers, old Gould contemplates. Where young Gould revels, old Gould reflects. The result is an even better recording: the best Canadian classical recording ever. — MP

CBC Radio 2's In Concert with host Paolo Pietropaolo will be featuring great Canadian recordings this September, each Sunday between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.

What would your number one Canadian classical album be? Tell us in the comments below. Discuss your thoughts on Twitter or leave a comment on CBC Radio 2's Facebook page.