In some ways, 2017 was a slog. But in other ways, the year seemed to go by in a flash, which may be attributable to the profusion of excellent new albums released by Canada's classical musicians this year.
We received albums from new ensembles and established artists, playing music ranging from the medieval period to the present — a variety of repertoire that's almost as impressive as the talented musicians bringing it to life. It's difficult to select the best from this deserving field, but there were a number that stood out for us.
Here's a countdown of our 10 favourite Canadian classical albums of the year.
Artists: Rolando Villazon, Ildar Abdrazakov, Orchestre Métropolitain, Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Label: Deutsche Grammophon
No doubt about it, this was the feel-good album of 2017, marking the Deutsche Grammophon debut of Montreal's Orchestre Métropolitain, which rose to the occasion with detailed solo and section work and a really plush string sound throughout this appealing program of duets by Donizetti, Verdi, Boito, Bizet and Gounod. It's impossible to resist the effusive music, not to mention the three-way bromance among conductor Nézet-Séguin, tenor Villazon and bass-baritone Abdrazakov, the latter of whom is especially impressive with his varied characterizations and seductive, smoky timbre. The album is available here.
Artists: Duo Concertante
This beautifully executed album introduced us to five amazing new Canadian works by Denis Gougeon, Alice Ping Yee Ho, Jocelyn Morlock, Chan Ka Nin and Andrew Staniland. A big challenge, to be sure, but nothing violinist Nancy Dahn and pianist Timothy Steeves aren't amply equipped to handle.
They make each work as compelling as the next: from the spaciousness of Morlock's Petrichor to Gougeon's wistful Chants du Coeur; from Chan's title track and its otherworldly electric violin to Ho's Coeur à Coeur (which could be a musical biography of Dahn and Steeves) to the gripping arc of Staniland's The River is Within Us — these comprise some of the year's best Canadian compositions.
Find out more about this album, plus Duo Concertante's new Christmas release, Perfect Light, here.
8. Stravinski, Prokofiev
Artist: David Jalbert
Label: ATMA Classique
2017 saw the continuation of the series from a number of prominent Canadian pianists — Vol. 2 of Angela Hewitt’s Scarlatti Sonatas on Hyperion, Vol. 3 of Janina Fialkowska’s Chopin Recital series for ATMA Classique and Louis Lortie Plays Chopin, Vol. 5 on Chandos — in addition to an accomplished all-Ravel album from Stewart Goodyear. All highly recommended and worthy of repeated listening.
But we were especially taken with David Jalbert’s latest release: transcriptions of ballet scores by Stravinsky and Prokofiev. Jalbert makes no secret of his obsession with Prokofiev — he's working through the complete sonata cycle in concert these days — so it's hardly surprising his reading of Ten Pieces from Romeo and Juliet is on point, from the swagger of "Mercutio" to the enchantment of "Friar Laurence." He plays Stravinsky's Trois Mouvements de Petrouchka and Firebird Suite (1919) with rhythmic elasticity and impressive power (with headsets you can hear him grunting, Gould-like, during the big passages), adapting them beautifully to the keyboard. It's pretty thrilling. Get it here.
7. The Path to Paradise
Artists: The Trinity Choir, Daniel Taylor
Label: Sony Classical
The Trinity Choir, Daniel Taylor and Sony Classical are on a roll with their third album in as many years. Their latest, The Path to Paradise, is hot off the presses — its official release is on Dec. 1 — but we've already got our advance copy on repeat.
The repertoire spans 1,000 years, from Gregorian chant (the antiphon "In Paradisum") to Arvo Pärt's 2001 "Nunc dimitis," by way of works by Renaissance composers Thomas Tallis, John Sheppard, Orlando di Lasso, William Byrd and Nicolas Gombert — mostly motets for Holy Week, chosen for their enlightening commentary on the theme of salvation.
Comprising singers from Canada and the U.K., the Trinity Choir's laser-beam intonation and blend are as impressive as ever. The album's centrepiece is Gregorio Allegri's Miserere, performed here with the perfect balance of precision and soul. The standout track is Pärt's Magnificat, whose haunting homophony will leave you breathless. Learn more about The Path to Paradise here.
6. Beethoven Violin Concerto
Artists: James Ehnes, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Andrew Manze
Label: Onyx Classics
This amazing September release is a result of James Ehnes's tenure as artist in residence with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. It may also have to do with the fact that Ehnes is in his 40s now and he finally felt ready to commit the formidable Beethoven concerto to disc. (Incidentally, he also released an excellent recording of Beethoven's Sonatas No. 6 and 9 with pianist Andrew Armstrong early in 2017.)
With his singing tone and impeccable taste — nothing is over- or understated in his hands — Ehnes is the ideal soloist for this concerto, one-third of a dream team rounded out by conductor Andrew Manze (himself a fine violinist) and the RLPO. Also included are Beethoven's two Romances for violin and orchestra (dreamy) and Schubert's Rondo in A Major (so polished!).
Find out more about this album, and Ehnes's whole Onyx catalogue, here.
5. In the Stream of Life: Songs by Sibelius
Artists: Gerald Finley, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Edward Gardner
The appearance of this album in late January woke us up from our hibernation and warmed us to our core.
Jean Sibelius wrote a good number of songs for voice and piano, but almost nothing for voice and orchestra — in retrospect, a shame for admirers of one of history's great orchestral composers. This album from Gerald Finley, Edward Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra aims to amend the situation, featuring a selection of orchestrated Sibelius songs, including the premiere recording of In the Stream of Life, a cycle of seven songs arranged by Finnish composer (and Finley's friend) Einojuhani Rautavaara, who died in July 2016.
"The recording became a very personal project when the sessions took place only a few weeks after [Rautavaara’s] death, in the same week as his funeral," Finley reflects.
We love the care with which he creates the appropriate atmosphere for each song, abetted by an outstanding orchestra and attentive conductor. The three orchestral works that complete the program are wonderfully executed. Head over to the Chandos website for further information.
4. Canadian National Brass Project
Artists: Canadian National Brass Project
We didn't even know about the Canadian National Brass Project (CNBP) until last July, when a tuba-playing colleague tipped us off to its existence. Comprising first chairs from the brass sections of 15 North American orchestras, the all-Canadian CNBP was founded in 2015 and its members get together briefly each summer to give concerts. If you're among the lucky few who have heard a CNBP performance, then you'll already know what we discovered upon hitting play on the group's debut, self-titled album: this is an awesome, mind-blowing ensemble!
Under the direction of hornist Jamie Sommerville, the CNBP plays a magnificent arrangement of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, recent pieces by Vincent Lau and Nicole Lizée, and Morten Lauridsen's own arrangement of his popular motet "O magnum mysterium." The talent and musicianship converging on these works is astonishing. The secret is out! Copies of the album are available here.
3. Morton Feldman: For Bunita Marcus
Artist: Marc-André Hamelin
Label: Hyperion Records
Upon listening to Marc-André Hamelin's latest release, you might think you had accidently hit play on a video of Nora the piano cat. But no, the pianist who never ceases to amaze us has ventured into the sound world of American composer Morton Feldman and in the process given us our new favourite soundtrack for late-night, lights-off, lying-on-the-floor musical reveries.
"It's going to be the most aggravating thing you've ever listened to, either that or the best migraine medicine you've ever had," he told NPR of Feldman's For Bunita Marcus, a 75-minute, pointillistic sound matrix that essentially never rises above a pianissimo dynamic. Hamelin likens the experience to observing the immensity of space and the irregular patterns of stars.
It's trippy and, frankly, a surprise from the pianist known for his dazzling keyboard prowess. Details here.
2. Alma oppressa
Artists: Julie Boulianne, Luc Beauséjour, Clavecin en Concert
Label: Analekta Records
Confession: we're users, and possibly abusers, of the "repeat song" function on CD players and streaming services, and we listened to the title track of Alma oppressa at least a dozen times before we were ready to move on to the rest of this awesome album of arias by Handel and Vivaldi.
Julie Boulianne positively owns this music, with a wide vocal range and breath support to sustain long, thrilling lines of coloratura. When things calm down, for instance in Handel's "Laschia ch'io pianga," she bathes us in her rich, distinctive timbre and affecting phrasing. You just don't want it to stop.
Haven't heard of Boulianne? She works primarily in Europe, with occasional engagements in Montreal. That's where she's been getting her baroque fix for the past few years, collaborating with harpsichordist Luc Beauséjour and his Clavecin en Concert outfit of stellar period instrument specialists.
Visit Analekta Records for more on this outstanding album.
1. Chopin: Works for Piano & Orchestra
Artists: Jan Lisiecki, NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester, Krzysztof Urbanski
Label: Deutsche Grammophon
Jan Lisiecki takes his championing of Chopin's music to the next level on our favourite album of the year, laying down definitive versions of lesser-known works, some of which are entering the Deutsche Grammophon catalogue for the first time. "Even within the music industry, there are people who are only vaguely aware or don’t even know that these works exist," he told us.
These include Chopin's Rondo à la Krakowiak, Op. 14, Fantasy on Polish Airs, Op. 13, and the better-known Variations on "La ci darem la mano," Op. 2.
The first thing that strikes the listener is the beautifully engineered sound — the piano is fully present, giving utmost clarity to the detailed filagree and awesome power to the climaxes. And because Lisiecki just gets Chopin — the rubato, the longing for Poland, the turbulence and the singing style — the idiom stays intact throughout, raising these relatively obscure works to top-drawer status. It's hard to imagine better partners in this endeavour than the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester and its principal guest conductor Krzysztof Urbanski, who together craft round sonorities and the perfect colours to complement the soloist.
Head over to the Deutsche Grammophon website for further information.
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