Canada's top 20 classical albums of 2020
Our picks for Canada's best classical albums of the year, from solo piano to opera and everything in between
Has there ever been a year during which new albums were as vital to our survival as they were in 2020?
With concert halls shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the arrival of new music — along with quarantine videos and live streams — was the closest we got this year to the thrill of live performance. And while records will never replace the concert experience, we're grateful to Canada's classical musicians for the profusion of new music they continue to release for our enjoyment.
Of the scores of new classical albums that came out in 2020, here are the 20 that stood out to us. If you've got money to spend this holiday season, click on the album titles for information on how to purchase and download them. Canada's classical musicians need your support more than ever.
20. Les Barocudas, La peste (The Plague) (ATMA Classique)
This debut album was our introduction to the fantastic world of Les Barocudas, the trio of Marie-Nadeau Tremblay (violin), Ryan Gallagher (viola da gamba) and Nathan Mondry (harpsichord, organ) who — before COVID-19 — decided to record music connected to the plague that killed so many in the 17th century, including some of the violinist-composers represented here. The repertoire shows off violinist Tremblay's silvery tone and exciting ornaments, abetted by Gallagher's pliable lines and Mondry's assured keyboard playing. (Mondry's solo harpsichord outing on a toccata by Michelangelo Rossi is a thrilling, quasi-psychedelic sidebar.)
19. Erin Wall, Joshua Hopkins, Andrew Staples, Nathan Berg, Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Davis, Massenet: Thaïs (Chandos)
One of 2020's most distressing headlines informed us of the death of soprano Erin Wall in early October at the age of 42. While Wall had been open about the cancer that would claim her life, the news still came as a shock, in part because she had been in such fine voice when she performed the title role in Massenet's Thaïs with the TSO only 11 months previously. We're extra grateful that the concert was recorded and released by Chandos — a souvenir of Wall's powerful singing, lovingly surrounded by an outstanding cast, orchestra and conductor. Her duets with baritone Joshua Hopkins (Athanaël) are especially hair-raising. Take a moment to remember Wall while listening to violinist Jonathan Crow play the opera's beloved "Méditation."
18. Stewart Goodyear, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Andrew Constantine, Beethoven: The Complete Piano Concertos (Orchid Classics)
While COVID-19 put a damper on the #Beethoven250 celebrations, there were still some things to get excited about, such as this triple album featuring the complete Beethoven piano concertos. Stewart Goodyear, the pianist known for his Beethoven sonatathons, is up to the challenge and takes the listener on a journey from the lithe, classically conceived concerto No. 1 through to the dramatic and decidedly heroic fifth. Especially impressive are his rondo movements, which have palpable lift, and Goodyear nicely conveys the bittersweet ache of the largos. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales responds well to Constantine's generally brisk tempi for a reading of these war horses that's fresh rather than formal, which is a nice change.
17. Duo Concertante, Franz Schubert: Music for Violin and Piano (Marquis)
"It takes time with Schubert," says pianist Timothy Steeves. "It's just so full of magic and mystery and there's a vulnerability that you feel when you play it." Like so many musicians, Steeves and violinist Nancy Dahn fell in love with Schubert's music early on, but waited many years before recording it. For their 12th album, the husband-and-wife duo decided the time was right, playing the pieces they've grown with — as performing artists and as a couple. They imbue the Sonata in A Major with youthful tenderness, whereas the Fantasy in C Major exudes autumnal vibes, a tinge of melancholy colouring even the prettiest phrases. Also, the unostentatious recorded sound suits the duo's refined, honest music-making.
16. Canadian National Brass Project, Constellations (Analekta)
The members of the Canadian National Brass Project are drawn from various orchestras across North America, so the logistics involved in getting this ephemeral group together for recording sessions boggle the mind. That's why we greeted their second album with extra enthusiasm — and were not disappointed. They play arrangements of orchestral favourites and choral gems. Standouts include "Jupiter" from Gustav Holst's The Planets, which they play with the requisite punch; a version of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture that we almost prefer to the orchestral original (!), as well as their solemn reading of Ola Gjeilo's "Sanctus," which slowly builds to a nice, juicy D-flat major conclusion.
15. Mark Fewer, Hank Knox, Vivaldi: Manchester Sonatas (Leaf Music)
This double album was released in January and while that seems like an eternity ago, we've had it in high rotation ever since. It's the first recording by Canadian musicians of this collection of 12 sonatas by Vivaldi, which were discovered in a library in Manchester, England, in 1973. Violinist Mark Fewer describes them as "a haberdashery of Vivaldi," due to their assemblage of unusual forms, phrase lengths and harmonic progressions. He and harpsichordist Hank Knox throw themselves into the sonatas' oddball twists and turns with unbridled gusto — a lusty, hot-blooded performance one doesn't always associate with baroque chamber music. A romp!
14. ARC Ensemble, Walter Kaufmann: Chamber Works (Chandos)
ARC Ensemble (Artists of the Royal Conservatory) continues its Music in Exile series with a deep dive into the chamber works of Czech composer Walter Kaufmann, who fled Nazi Germany and took refuge in Mumbai, India, before moving to Canada, then the United States. Listen for Eastern scales in Violin Sonata No. 2 (wonderfully rendered by Erika Raum and Kevin Ahfat) and Sonatina No. 12, arranged for Joaquin Valdepeñas's liquid clarinet tones and Ahfat again on piano. Impassioned performances of two string quartets as well as a septet for strings and piano belie the klezmer in Kaufmann's soul, not to mention his reverence for the music of Gustav Mahler.
13. Hélène Brunet, Harmonie des Saisons, Solfeggio (ATMA Classique)
Hélène Brunet's gleaming soprano cuts through the gloom of 2020 like a ray of hope on this nicely curated survey of baroque and classical arias. She sounds right at home with her usual early music posse, Harmonie des Saisons, whether she's digging into the coloratura of Handel's Scipione or spinning silky vocal lines in Vivaldi's lilting motet "Nulla in mundo pax sincera." The album takes its name from the final track, a wordless vocalise (or solfeggio) that must have been the model for the aria "Christe eleison" from Mozart's Mass in C Minor, and which Brunet lovingly caresses without a trace of tension — simply beautiful!
12. Mélisande Corriveau, Eric Milnes, Marin Marais: Badinages (ATMA Classique)
Marin Marais may not be a familiar name outside early music circles, but his music forms the backbone of viol repertoire — he wrote five volumes of suites — and viola da gambist Mélisande Corriveau and harpsichordist Eric Milnes play selections from Book IV on this April release that stopped us in our tracks. There's simply no resisting the pathos and abandon with which they throw themselves into the undulating phrases of these French dance movements: boutades, menuets, gavottes and gigues. Listen especially for special expressive effects such as enflés and one- and two-finger vibrato, which Corriveau integrates into her performance so convincingly.
11. Taktus, Mirrored Glass (Ravello)
This album is the sequel to 2015's excellent Ann Southam: Glass Houses, which was our introduction to Taktus, the duo of percussionists Greg Harrison and Jonny Smith. They returned with more two-marimba arrangements of Southam's music (Rivers, Set 1 is simply stunning), as well as some Études by Philip Glass (Book 1, No. 5, will take your breath away), plus Glass's Music in Contrary Motion, which has added electronics. It goes without saying that their performance is rhythmically precise, but what impresses most of all is their ability to establish a mood and extract gorgeous melodic lines out of the minimalist mist.
10. Beverley Johnston, Marc Djokic, Amici Ensemble, The Spirit and the Dust (Centrediscs)
This Centrediscs release finds percussionist Beverley Johnston in fine form — and excellent company — playing marimba and vibraphone, and in one piece singing, too. The album is a survey of pieces by Dinuk Wijeratne, Christos Hatzis, Norbert Palej and Richard Mascall, and they couldn't be more contrasting, one from the next. To borrow Johnston's expression, Wijeratne's four-movement suite, The Spirit and the Dust, is a "marimba masterpiece." In Ser con Él, Palej requires Johnston to sing and narrate as well as play, and wow, does she commit! There are warm tango sounds in Hatzis's Parlor Music, while Mascall's Quantum Hologram is a hoe-down with expert fiddling from Marc Djokic.
9. Matt Haimovitz, Mari Kodama, Mon ami, mon amour (Pentatone)
While cellist Matt Haimovitz has been enjoying acclaim for his recent Grammy nomination for best classical compendium for Luna Pearl Woolf: Fire and Flood, we're here to rave about his all-French recital album with pianist Mari Kodama that came out in early November. Debussy's sonata, which can often seem like a bunch of disjointed episodes, is in their hands a coherent whole. Miniatures by Lili and Nadia Boulanger as well as the obligatory transcription of Gabriel Fauré's "Après un rêve" show off Haimovitz's creamy tone. He and Kodama seem to revel in the ever-shifting moods of Poulenc's sonata, enjoying the humour and lively repartee, but also taking time to luxuriate in the lyricism.
8. Alice Ping Yee Ho, Vania Chan, Patty Chan, Lulu, The Venom of Love: Electronic Ballet Music (Leaf Music)
We're envious of anyone who attended the 2014 premiere of The Venom of Love at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre and got to see the choreography set to this mind-blowing music by Alice Ping Yee Ho. Combining synthesized and acoustic sounds (soprano, percussion), Ho's score "deals with elements of fantasy and eroticism from a primeval, magical world," according to the album notes, and that pretty much describes the psychic trip we took upon hitting play! The music positively seduces you with intricately organized and endlessly inventive sounds, hurtling you into an enchanting and sometimes dangerous-sounding world. Warning: once you've been bitten by this music, there's no antidote.
7. James Ehnes, Andrew Armstrong, Beethoven Sonatas 4, 5 and 8 (Onyx)
While we await the final volume in James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong's Beethoven sonata series, due out Dec. 11, let's celebrate this instalment, which appeared in July. Its centrepiece is the "Spring" Sonata, whose first movement Ehnes and Armstrong play with remarkable vigor, accentuating the pulse and turning its middle section into a veritable storm scene. Slow movements in their hands are impassioned rather than fragile — a good example being the minuet of Sonata No. 8, which Enhes plays with a burnished tone. Look no further than the third movement of Sonata No. 4 and its twisting figurations for proof of the duo's superhuman cohesiveness.
6. Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, Agnese Eglina, Guntis Kuzma, Andris Poga, Talivaldis Keninš: Symphony No. 1, 2 Concertos (Ondine)
It's been more than a decade since Latvian–Canadian composer Talivaldis Keninš died, and this year the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra honoured his legacy on two albums, with this one on the Ondine label really grabbing our attention. Classical in conception and truly accomplished in their execution, Keninš' compositions exhibit scintillating orchestral effects and rhythmic propulsion, which the LNSO and conductor Guntis Kuzma accentuate in the Concerto for Piano, Percussion and String Orchestra (1990) and Concerto da camera No. 1 (1988). Keninš' Symphony No. 1 (1959) — the first of eight he would write — has Debussy, Ravel and Messiaen in its DNA and conductor Andris Poga leads a ravishing reading.
5. Louis Lortie, A Fauré Recital, Vol. 2 (Chandos)
Two volumes in, Louis Lortie is making a convincing case for the solo piano music of Gabriel Fauré, which, apart from certain Nocturnes and Ballades, remains relatively obscure. On this release, Lortie lures you in with beautifully paced piano transcriptions of "Pie Jesu" and "In paradisum" from Fauré's popular Requiem, and then wows you with a nicely conceived recital of gems (the Op. 19 Ballade, the Op. 73 Theme and Variations) and discoveries (a few delicious Barcarolles). Phrases are shaped judiciously with rubato and dynamic control, and there are some breathtaking passages of finger work that will leave you in awe.
4. Andrew Wan, OSM, Kent Nagano, Ginastera, Bernstein, Moussa: Works for Violin and Orchestra (Analekta)
We'll treasure this October release as a souvenir of Kent Nagano's tenure as music director of the OSM, which came to an end last spring. Not only did he excel at making bold repertoire choices, but he also loved putting concertmaster Andrew Wan into the spotlight, and this album features Wan in three modern works, including the world premiere of Samy Moussa's Violin Concerto, which successfully imports Romantic harmonies and gestures into a contemporary idiom. Wan's bright tone and precise articulation serve it well, as they do Bernstein's bucolic-sounding Serenade for Solo Violin, Strings, Harp and Percussion. While Ginastera's Violin Concerto places big demands on the soloist, Wan prevails, no doubt inspired by his orchestral colleagues who bring their A game to this complex score.
3. Jan Lisiecki, Matthias Goerne, Beethoven Songs (Deutsche Grammophon)
One of the best discoveries of 2020 was that Jan Lisiecki, soloist extraordinaire, is also a fine collaborative pianist — especially remarkable, since this was his first experience playing Lieder. Lisiecki's label, Deutsche Grammophon, paired him with seasoned German baritone Matthias Goerne, who praised Lisiecki's fluency and confidence, and compared their collaboration to "surfing the same wave." In Beethoven, the pair makes a splash, with Goerne scaling his formidable voice down to Lieder dimensions and employing a lovely transparent tone in his high register, and Lisiecki exhibiting an innate sense of timing, elegant touch and playfulness when required.
2. Elinor Frey, Mauro Valli, Federica Bianchi, Giangiacomo Pinardi, Giuseppe Clemente Dall'Abaco Cello Sonatas (Passacaille)
Baroque cellist Elinor Frey's projects are always interesting, but she really outdid herself on her latest album, which marks the first ever recording of these 18th-century sonatas. After learning everything there is to know about Dall'Abaco (even visiting his house), Frey recorded these sonatas in the elaborately frescoed Sala della Carità in Padova, Italy, with an outstanding little group of musicians. Together, they reveal all the verve, tenderness and surprises that abound in Dall'Abaco's music. Frey plays a Karl Dennis cello, which is an exact copy of the Cristiani Stradivari, and her tone is incredibly sweet and unforced as she sails through her phrases and ornaments with apparent ease and infectious joy.
1. Charles Richard-Hamelin, Les Violons du Roy, Jonathan Cohen, Mozart Piano Concertos Nos. 22 and 24 (Analekta)
Hit play and bask in the golden aura emanating from these musicians who converged on Quebec City's Palais Montcalm to record this pair of piano concertos, chosen not only for their closely related keys but also their robust woodwind sections. Charles Richard-Hamelin's ease at the keyboard translates into seamless passage work, perfectly controlled dynamics and an uncanny symbiosis with conductor Jonathan Cohen and his orchestra, whether they're spreading Figaro-esque cheer in No. 22 or exploring the moody turbulence of No. 24. Hats off to the recording crew who captured these soulful performances so faithfully.