Classical Junos: who's going to win the solo/chamber category?
It's a tough call, but here are our predictions on who should win, and who will win
To prepare for the 2018 Juno Awards, we're breaking down each of the four classical categories.
Having already analyzed the large ensemble category, we now turn our attention to classical album of the year: solo or chamber.
This year's nominees are:
- ARC Ensemble, Chamber Works by Szymon Laks
- David Jalbert, Stravinsky & Prokofiev: Transcriptions pour piano
- James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong, Beethoven: Violin Sonatas Nos. 6 & 9 "Kreutzer"
- Janina Fialkowska, Chopin Recital 3
- Louis Lortie, Louis Lortie Plays Chopin, Vol. 5
None of these soloists or groups is a first-time nominee, but it may surprise you to learn that three of them have never won a Juno Award — a situation that may change this year. Before we break it down in detail, including predictions on who should win and who will win, we want to draw attention to an omission.
One of our favourite Canadian classical albums of 2017 was Incarnation, a collection of five new Canadian works commissioned and played by Duo Concertante. We were expecting it to get a Juno nod not only for its ambitious concept and beautifully recorded sound, but also for introducing us to some entertaining, compelling new Canadian music. There is a silver lining: one of the album's five new works, Coeur à Coeur by Alice Ping Yee Ho, has been nominated in the classical composition of the year category.
Now, onto the five nominees.
1. ARC Ensemble, Chamber Works by Szymon Laks (Chandos)
Unfamiliar with Polish composer Szymon Laks, whose music was labelled "degenerate" by the Nazis and who led the Auschwitz orchestra while imprisoned there, we were expecting the latest instalment in ARC Ensemble's Music in Exile series to echo the horror of the atrocities Laks must have witnessed. Not so.
Laks' music, played here with the perfect balance of fervour and precision by the Artists of the Royal Conservatory (ARC), is abstract and neo-classical in design, the product of a mathematical mind and thorough training.
We love the array of instrumentation on this album, from David Louie's sprightly, impressionistic solo piano on Laks' four-movement Sonatina, through some deft writing for wind instruments, to the robust Piano Quintet that admirably extends the tradition of Fauré and Dvorák in that genre. It's a thoroughly entertaining program, played flawlessly.
The earlier entry in ARC Ensemble's Music in Exile series received both Juno and Grammy nominations, giving this new Laks project serious momentum. Who could stand in their way?
2. David Jalbert, Stravinsky & Prokofiev: Transcriptions pour piano (ATMA Classique)
Pianist David Jalbert is hoping his third Juno nomination will bring the win he has twice been denied in this category, and it's for his strongest album to date.
We were really taken with his program of transcriptions of ballet scores by Stravinsky and Prokofiev. The latter's Ten Pieces from Romeo and Juliet is on point and full of contrast, with brisk, angular tropak-style dances that give way to languorous andantes that suspend time.
Condensing a score as rich as Stravinsky's Firebird to the piano seems impossible, but Jalbert digs into it with gusto and in the three movements included here, he creates a whole range of effects, from the white heat of "Danse infernal du roi Kastcheï" to the twinkling starlight of "Berceuse," to the pealing bells of the Finale. The Trois Mouvements de Petrouchka that open the album are just pure joy.
This album compares favourably with the other two solo piano nominees in this category. But how will it fare against the Juno juggernaut of James Ehnes?
3. James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong, Beethoven: Violin Sonatas Nos. 6 & 9, 'Kreutzer' (ONYX Classics)
As the most-decorated classical musician in Juno history, Ehnes is practically a shoo-in each time he's nominated.
This year, he and pianist Andrew Armstrong have entered the race with their recording of two Beethoven sonatas, No. 6 and No. 9 — 60 minutes of pure pleasure. We've got to be thankful these two like-minded musicians found each other and forged such a lasting, intrinsic partnership, as anybody who attended a concert in their cross-Canada tour in 2016 can attest.
It's a welcome relief to hear a "Kreutzer" Sonata that's not overwrought with Sturm und Drang! Ehnes and Armstrong play up its classical side and interplay between light and dark, and that helps it cohabit so easily with the elegance of No. 6, which in their hands is almost impossibly refined.
Is this the first volume of a Beethoven cycle? If so, they have excellent examples to follow — not to mention stiff competition — in the remaining two nominees in this category.
4. Janina Fialkowska, Chopin Recital 3 (ATMA Classique)
Can you believe Janina Fialkowska, a fixture on Canada's classical music scene for over 40 years, has yet to win a Juno Award? Her eighth nomination is for the latest instalment in her celebrated Chopin Recital series on ATMA Classique. (Vol. 2 in this series was BBC Music Magazine's CD of the year in 2012.)
On Chopin Recital 3, Fialkowska plays four iconic late works: the Polonaise-fantaisie; the Impromptu No. 3 (streaming above); the fourth Scherzo; and the fourth Ballade. Interspersed with some of the more popular Nocturnes, Waltzes and Preludes, it's a tremendously satisfying program, played with mellow sound and genuine soul.
Fialkowska isn't the only pianist who plays Chopin well (see No. 5, below), but there's an added, uncanny conversational element in her interpretations. "There's a wonderful story in this piece," she seems to be saying, "and this is how it goes." It opens a line of communication straight to your heart.
Fialkowska and Chopin are likely to waltz their way to a win in this category. That is, unless Louis Lortie cuts in.
5. Louis Lortie, Louis Lortie Plays Chopin, Vol. 5 (Chandos)
The bell-like tone, the singing line with that ever-present tinge of melancholy — there's no mistaking the seasoned Chopin playing of Louis Lortie, now on Vol. 5 of his Chopin project for Chandos. Here, Lortie delves into Chopin's pieces that have overtly Polish influences, starting with the Mazurkas (the Op. 7, 33 and 59 sets) whose mercurial melodies and erratic rhythms can take some getting used to. Lortie makes perfect sense of them with an incredibly sensitive left hand that allows the melody to blossom.
Each set of Mazurkas is crowned by a Polonaise, played with the requisite martial flair. The F-sharp minor Polonaise, Op. 44, is especially bracing in Lortie's hands, with impressively percussive chords.
And just when you think you're familiar with all of Chopin's piano music, boom: he concludes the album with the 11-minute Allegro de concert, Op. 46, a discovery for us. It came as a fun surprise at the end of this rather rigorous program.
Three-time winner Lortie nabbed his last Juno Award in 1994. Will this Chopin album end his drought?
Honestly, all five nominees in this category are richly deserving of a win, but we'd like to see ARC Ensemble's Laks tribute come out on top. In addition to its accomplished performances and beautiful production values, this album introduced us to the treasure trove of Laks' catalogue and constitutes a varied and thoroughly entertaining listening experience.
We think Janina Fialkowska will get her long-overdue first Juno Award.
Wherever you are in the world, you can watch the 2018 Juno Awards broadcast live from the Rogers Arena in Vancouver on March 25 at cbcmusic.ca/junos.