We’ve carefully reviewed the dozens of Canadian classical recordings that have crossed our desks this year. From the impressive pool of recordings by emerging and established artists covering the complete gamut of classical music, we’ve identified these 10 highlights that we just can’t stop listening to.
10. Beethoven: String Quartets, Op. 18, Nos. 1-3
Artists: Eybler Quartet
Label: Coro Connections (CO6164)
It may be hard to believe that following Beethoven’s exact performance instructions could be controversial, but when you hear the Eybler Quartet’s latest recording you may understand why. While researching Beethoven’s messy manuscripts, they found his tempo markings calling for faster fasts and slower slows than how most modern performances go. In fact, Eybler Quartet violist Patrick Jordan told CBC Music that it took him 30 years to find a group of musicians brave enough to give it a try.
Jordan admits that this unusual approach isn’t necessarily the only or correct way of tackling these first three of Beethoven’s Op. 18 quartets, but it does shift how we hear the works unfold. Indeed, the breakneck speeds of the fast movements feel more urgent than what we’re used to and the drawn-out slow movements can feel measured or even lethargic. Combine that with the Eybler Quartet’s clean, precise playing and you get a recording that keeps you paying attention.
Want to hear more Beethoven from this fresh perspective? We hear there are more recordings coming from the Eybler Quartet early in 2019.
9. Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa
Artist: Jeremy Dutcher
Label: Fontana North
Jeremy Dutcher could very well be what the future of classical music looks like. He is the scholar, composer/arranger and performer behind this Polaris Prize-winning recording that is challenging what it means to be a classical musician in 2018. Dutcher dusted off wax cylinders at the Canadian Museum of History of his ancestors singing nearly-forgotten traditional songs of the Wolastoqiyik Nation. He orchestrates powerful accompaniments and performs the songs in his clear tenor voice bringing new life to these melodies.
This recording may not fit perfectly in the classical category, but these blurred genre lines are what will bring much-needed new energy and sounds to classical music. Dutcher, like many composers before him, is showing that music is a powerful tool for preserving memories and ideas. We can’t wait to see how he follows up this remarkable debut recording.
8. Bruckner: The Nine Symphonies
Artists: Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Orchestre Métropolitain
Label: ATMA Classique (ACD22451)
This landmark release from Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Orchestre Métropolitain is the culmination of over a decade of work to record all nine of Bruckner’s symphonies. (Technically he wrote 11 but two were destroyed because he was a perfectionist.) New in this box set are the first and fifth symphonies, which were recorded live in 2017.
Of course, Nézet-Séguin’s career has skyrocketed during the course of these recordings. He was named music director of the Metropolitan Opera, an appointment which began two years earlier than expected this past September, and also started and finished a music directorship in Rotterdam during this time. The wide emotional scope of Bruckner’s symphonies provide the perfect canvas for the Orchestre Métropolitain and its conductor to show off how they’ve grown during this exciting period.
7. The End of Flowers
Artists: Gryphon Trio
Label: Analekta (AN 2 9520)
In the midst of their 25th anniversary season, the Gryphon Trio released this recording pairing two piano trios from the dark aftermath of the First World War. Pianist Jamie Parker describes the Rebecca Clarke trio in an interview with CBC Music as, "full of passion and beauty [with] lots of stylistic influences — modality, impressionism, bitonality, dissonance etc. — weaved together into a really engaging work." Though Ravel started his trio before joining the war effort, there is an underlying unease throughout the piece hinting at what was to come. Is the Gryphon Trio trying to send a subtle message here by including two works written in difficult times, each with undertones of optimism and perseverance?
This is an effective pairing of two works that, although contrasting, were written within a decade of each other. It’s this kind of intelligent music-making that we have come to expect from the Gryphon Trio.
6. Saint-Saëns: Piano Concertos No. 1, 2, 4
Artists: Louis Lortie, Edward Gardner, BBC Philharmonic
Label: Chandos (CHAN 20031)
We’ve long admired Lortie’s playing. It’s always tasteful and never unnecessarily flashy. You can say the same of Saint-Saens’ piano concertos. Naturally, Lortie’s brilliant but never over-the-top playing pairs so nicely with this repertoire. It was especially rewarding to hear him perform the first and fourth here, which aren’t programmed nearly as often as the second.
This release marks the fourth recorded collaboration between Lortie and English conductor Edward Gardner, who have clearly developed a close musical relationship. We’ll be waiting patiently for a recording of the third and fifth concertos to complete this set.
5. Schubert: Octet in F major
Artists: OSM Chamber Soloists (Andrew Wan, Olivier Thouin, Victor Fournelle-Blain, Brian Manker, Ali Kian Yazdanfar, Todd Cope, Stéphane Lévesque, John Zirbel)
Label: Analekta (AN 2 8799)
Every so often, a handful of OSM musicians step away from the full orchestra to form intimate chamber groups. This means that we listeners get treated to impressive ensemble playing by colleagues who know each other's musical personalities incredibly well.
This second release from the OSM Chamber Soloists caught our attention because of the high-quality performances we heard here. The Schubert Octet was commissioned by a clarinetist, and it seems like he put extra care into that part. Listen for OSM principal clarinetist Todd Cope’s sublime melodic lines, particularly in the slow movement.
4. New Worlds
Artists: NAC Orchestra, Alexander Shelley
Label: Analekta (AN 2 8873)
When Alexander Shelley arrived in Ottawa as music director of the NAC Orchestra in the 2015/16 season, he promised an emphasis on the creation of new Canadian works alongside old favourites. This recording shows that commitment.
New Worlds explores border crossing — a hot topic again in 2018 — from two different perspectives. The first is a work by Serbian-born composer Ana Sokolović described as a European “travel diary” using folk texts in six different languages. In Golden slumbers kiss your eyes…, we hear the orchestra, chorus and Canadian-Korean countertenor David DQ Lee migrating nimbly between the different sound worlds. The recording is rounded out with Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” in which Shelley is keen to play with tempos to bring out the drama of this familiar work.
3. Vivaldi: Concertos pour flûte à bec
Artists: Vincent Lauzer, Arion Baroque Orchestra, Alexander Weimann
Label: ATMA Classique (ACD22760)
What are the non-negotiables of a good Vivaldi recording? We like caffeinated tempos, crisp accompaniment and no lack of drama. We’re here to report that this award-winning album featuring recorder virtuoso Vincent Lauzer is that and more.
Yes, these are difficult works that give Lauzer the chance to show how fast he can play, but he also proves himself as a sensitive interpreter of this music, particularly in the expressive slower movements. Listen for him performing on three different types of recorders together with the articulate playing of the Arion Baroque Orchestra in the capable hands of Alexander Weimann.
2. Ravel - Debussy: Sonates
Artists: Blake Pouliot, Hsin-I Huang
Label: Analekta (AN 2 8798)
Let’s take a quick look back at Blake Pouliot’s 2018: he won the Women's Musical Club of Toronto's 2018 Career Development Award ($20,000), he won the Canada Council’s Virginia Parker Prize ($25,000), and he won a three-year loan of a 1729 Guarneri del Gesù violin (priceless). Oh, and he released this debut recording.
The 24-year-old violinist, who isn’t afraid of sequins or ascots, lets his personality shine brightly through these French works. We can’t get enough of his colourful slides and articulations in Ravel’s Tzigane, or the intensity he brings to the Debussy. If this year is a sign of things to come for Pouliot, then we know whom to watch for in 2019.
1. Schubert Piano Sonata and Impromptus
Artist: Marc-André Hamelin
Label: Hyperion Records (CDA68213)
Of the dozens of recordings Marc-André Hamelin has made in his long relationship with Hyperion Records, many championing nearly-forgotten composers, this marks his first time turning his attention to Schubert. But don’t read too much into that. He confessed that he’d be entirely satisfied playing this repertoire at every recital for the rest of his life, in an interview with CBC Music earlier this year.
In this recording of Schubert’s introspective final sonata, Hamelin carefully navigates the vast emotional peaks and valleys of a composer who was starting to realise that his days were numbered. We also get to hear Hamelin’s take on Schubert’s second set of Impromptus. Under Hamelin’s hands, they range in tone from tragic to playful and are so rewarding to listen to. It’s no wonder he says that this recording means more to him than anything he’s ever done.