Canada's top 21 classical albums of 2021

Outstanding records from ARC Ensemble, Emily d'Angelo, Angela Hewitt, James Ehnes and others.

Outstanding records from ARC Ensemble, Emily d'Angelo, Angela Hewitt, James Ehnes and others

Albums from Emily d'Angelo and David Jalbert were among our favourites of 2021. (Mark Pillai, Julien Faugère; design by Melody Lau and Myles Chiu/CBC Music)

As 2021 draws to a close and the COVID-19 pandemic shows signs of receding, there's reason to hope that music-making and classical concert life will return to normal (or something close to it) before long.

Getting to this point hasn't been easy, but Canada's classical musicians were undeterred and in many cases used the pandemic hiatus to learn new repertoire and make records they may not have had time to make under normal circumstances. And for that, we're truly grateful.

With physical-distancing restrictions in place for much of the year, it's understandable that the majority of new releases in 2021 were solo projects, especially solo piano and violin. (But hats off to Montreal's Orchestre Métropolitain, which somehow managed to record and release the next instalment in its Sibelius symphony cycle.)

Scroll down to discover the Canadian classical albums that grabbed the attention of hosts and producers here at CBC Music in 2021. Click on the album titles for information on how to purchase and download them. We've also created a Spotify playlist so you can sample highlights all in one place:

These were our favourites of the year. What were yours? Let us know via Twitter @CBCclassical.

21. Introspection: Solo Piano Sessions, Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Yannick Nézet-Séguin is pictured on the cover of Introspection wearing a green hoodie, and it sets the tone for this two-hour set of predominantly cozy pieces. With his schedule unencumbered by opera and symphony concerts, he did what all good pianists do: practise. He evidently just needed some down time to get this music studio-ready. His sensitive playing draws you into a wistful Adagio by Mozart and a breathtaking miniature by Luciano Berio. He also explores the heartbreak of one of Rachmaninoff's Moments Musicaux and the pent-up energy of a Rhapsody by Brahms, alongside music by Bach, Shostakovich, Debussy and others.

20. Philip Glass: The Complete Piano Etudes, Leslie Dala

Leslie Dala is the Swiss army knife of Vancouver's classical music scene: he's associate conductor at Vancouver Opera and music director of the Vancouver Bach Choir. But his first love was piano, and when the COVID-19 pandemic cleared Dala's calendar, he used the time to learn Philip Glass's Etudes as a 50th birthday project for himself. "I really got lost in the world of these pieces," Dala told CBC. The rhythmic precision of his performance is enhanced by his choice to use a recording studio rather than a resonant concert hall for the sessions, an intimacy that turns Glass's subtle shifts in harmony and texture into dramatic events.

19. Beethoven: Violin Sonatas 4, 9, 10, Charles Richard-Hamelin, Andrew Wan

Volume 2 of Andrew Wan and Charles Richard-Hamelin's Beethoven sonata cycle recently won a Félix Award for classical album of the year (soloist/small ensemble) and Volume 3, comprising the fourth, ninth and 10th sonatas, concluded their survey with panache. The sessions were held at Église St-Augustin in Mirabel, Que., and you'd be hard-pressed to find a more beautifully recorded set of these pieces. There's uncanny interplay between Wan and Richard-Hamelin, especially evident in the intricate Presto of the Kreutzer Sonata and the genteel Andante of Sonata No. 4 as they seamlessly swap phrases.

18. Vintage Americana, Christina Petrowska Quilico

Pianist Christina Petrowska Quilico used the pandemic pause to curate this compilation of stunning recordings she made for CBC in the '70s and '90s of works by some of the leading American composers of the day. The centrepiece is The Turtle and the Crane by Frederic Rzewski, who died in July, and what better reminder of his genius than to hear Petrowska Quilico's absolute control over the piece's frenetic repeated notes? On the other end of the spectrum is Lowell Liebermann's Apparitions, a neo-impressionist suite whose subtle shadings she renders impeccably. Some pieces include electronics to great effect, such as the eerily tip-toeing Quivi Sospiri by American–Canadian composer David Jaeger (who produced some of the recording sessions). Also included: works by Mario Davidovsky, Paul Huebner and David Del Tredici.

17. Matthew Larkin Plays Casavant Opus 550 at St. Paul's Anglican Church, Toronto, Matthew Larkin

This is organist Matthew Larkin's sophomore album — arriving 38 years after his debut release! He wasn't sitting on his hands during those years: as one of Canada's busiest church musicians, he simply didn't have time for recording organ music — until the COVID-19 hiatus, that is. Larkin's mission on this double album is to show off the brilliance and amazing versatility of the Casavant organ at St. Paul's Anglican Church in Toronto through a wide range of repertoire: Bach, Mendelssohn, Duruflé, Franck, Messiaen, Jongen, Howells and Willan, yes, but also Keith Jarrett (!) and Larkin's own arrangement of Couperin's charming Les Barricades mysterieuses.

16. Tapeo, Cameron Crozman and Philip Chiu

On their 2019 album, Cavatine, cellist Cameron Crozman and pianist Philip Chiu played music that may have intersected in time and space with the cello Crozman was using at the time, the Canada Council's "Bonjour" Strad. The duo returned in 2021 with Tapeo, a Spanish-themed album centred around Crozman's current instrument, the Joannes Guillami cello, built in Barcelona in 1769. While it's a fun concept, and one Crozman researched in depth, the real star of this album is Crozman and Chiu's partnership, which combines studied precision with zestful abandon. Look no further than Albéniz's Asturias for a perfect example.

15. Debussy: Preludes, Book 1, Jean-Luc Therrien

"I've always been amazed by Debussy's uniqueness and creativity in producing new sounds on the instrument," pianist Jean-Luc Therrien told CBC Music upon the release of his debut album. So, when Orpheus Classical greenlit his proposal, he headed to Drummondville, Que. "I knew there was an opportunity for me to record on a beautiful Fazioli at the Maison des arts Desjardins, which would allow me to go far in my search for sounds and colours." He found them, as his vivid interpretation of Debussy's Book 1 Preludes attests. To round out the album, he plays his own solo piano arrangement of Franz Liszt's orchestral poem Les Préludes and it's a tour de force.

14. Intimate Impressions, Adam Cicchillitti, Steve Cowan

On their second album as a duo, guitarists Adam Cicchillitti and Steve Cowan refine their partnership, focusing on composers based in Paris during the 20th century — Ravel, Tailleferre, Debussy, Jolivet and Mompou — much of it newly arranged by Cicchillitti and Cowan themselves. The album includes gems (Debussy's Arabesque No. 1, Ravel's Pavane pour une infante défunte) alongside Jolivet's spirited Sérénade and excerpts from Mompou's haunting Música Callada. The duo's precision is impressive, but what stays with you are the wistful watercolour scenes that spring to mind while they perform.

13. Love Songs, Angela Hewitt

Angela Hewitt was kind to her fans during the pandemic, streaming near-daily performances on Facebook (her "yellow curtain concerts") from her flat in London, England. This album of piano arrangements of beloved classics is an extension of that generosity, with each piece chosen for its commentary on the theme of love: "Love is what keeps us going — love in all its forms," she writes in the notes. Her new Fazioli piano sounds pristine as she plays, among other pieces, Max Reger's arrangements of Lieder by Richard Strauss, Ernesto Halffter's take on Manuel de Falla's Six Popular Spanish Songs, and her own poignant, eight-minute version of the Adagietto from Mahler's fifth.

12. Distance, the Choir of the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul, Jonathan Oldengarm, Jean-Sébastien Vallée

Choirs were hit especially hard by the physical-distancing strictures imposed during the fight against COVID-19, but the intrepid musicians at Montreal's Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul didn't let that stop them. Their album's title is a nod to the challenging conditions of the recording sessions, with choristers spaced throughout the sanctuary to ensure safety. This makes it even more impressive that their trademark rich sound and blend are in full evidence here, traversing diverse but coherent repertoire: J.S. Bach's "Komm, Jesu, Komm," James MacMillan's "A Child's Prayer," choral arrangements of Samuel Barber's Adagio and Edward Elgar's Nimrod Variation, and Caroline Shaw's "And the Swallow," to single out only some of the highlights.

11. Chopin, Bruce Liu

For Canada, one of the biggest headlines of 2021 was Montreal pianist Bruce Liu's first prize at the 18th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition. Liu advanced through the competition's stages like a dark horse, playing with sensitivity and spontaneity and eventually finding himself among 12 finalists who played a concerto with the Warsaw Philharmonic to vie for the coveted first prize. The day after Liu was crowned winner, Deutsche Grammophon announced it would release highlights from his solo performances in rounds 1 to 3. To listen to the album now is to relive all the competition's excitement and hear why the jury singled Liu out for the gold medal.

10. Bach au pardessus de viole, Mélisande Corriveau, Eric Milnes

J.S. Bach never wrote music for the pardessus de viole (the smallest member of the viol family, once common in France) and in fact, he likely never even heard one, but of course he was no stranger to adapting his compositions to different instruments. It's in that spirit that Mélisande Corriveau and Eric Milnes adapt and play a selection of chamber works by Bach, and the results are extraordinarily sensual, with the velvety tone of Corriveau's pardessus de viole caressing Bach's phrases without a trace of friction in the sound. Playing a beautifully recorded Yves Beaupré harpsichord, Milnes is an elegant partner with unerring rhythm and tasteful ornaments.

9. Prokofiev: Piano Sonatas Vol. 1, David Jalbert

By his own admission, David Jalbert is Prokofiev-obsessed and he has finally released the first of three volumes of the Russian composer's complete sonatas. It contains sonatas 1 to 4 plus the famous Suggestion Diabolique and three pieces from Op. 12. "[Prokofiev's] early sonatas and short pieces demonstrate why he was such a rock star in his youth: the savage moto perpetuos of Suggestion Diabolique and the second and third sonatas, his limitless melodic imagination and the surprising tenderness that he sprinkles in when you least expect it," Jalbert told CBC Music. Listen and be amazed.

8. Klebanov: Chamber Works, ARC Ensemble

Each time ARC Ensemble (Artists of the Royal Conservatory) releases a new instalment in its Grammy-nominated Music in Exile series, we drop everything. This time, the group focuses on Ukrainian composer Dmitri Klebanov, who fell out of favour with Soviet authorities upon the publication of his "subversive" first symphony in 1945, and was only "rehabilitated" in 1960 with a university appointment during the Nikita Khrushchev era. This new release comprises the world premiere recording of three of his chamber works, impeccably performed. Klebanov's son Yuri advised ARC Ensemble on the project, but sadly died of COVID-19 before its release.

7. Chopin: 24 Preludes, Charles Richard-Hamelin

As the 2015 Chopin Competition silver medallist, Charles Richard-Hamelin has been touring a new Chopin recital program each year, then hitting the studio to record an album. That had been the plan with the 24 Preludes, but COVID-19 nixed the concert tour. Instead, Richard-Hamelin workshopped the music at home, alone, rather than on the road, in front of an audience. "That style of working brought me back to my student days," he told Artsmania. It also enabled him to probe the contrasting character of each of these miniatures and get to their essence, a challenge for any pianist, and one that Richard-Hamelin meets with apparent ease. Come for the Preludes, but stay for his masterful take on the Andante spianato and grande polonaise brillante, which rounds out the program.

6. Préludes et Solitudes, Marie Nadeau-Tremblay

Last year, we raved about La peste, the debut album from baroque violinist Marie Nadeau-Tremblay's trio, Les Barocudas. This year, she returned with her debut album as a soloist and it stopped us in our tracks. Here's a project imbued with personality, whose aim, as she explains in the notes, is "to share an atmosphere, the feeling of a precious moment." Those moments unfold in abundance as she plays unaccompanied works by Telemann, Purcell, Torelli, Baltzar and Biber with riveting urgency and spontaneity. So immersed was she in their music that she also wrote a poem to accompany each piece, and created the album art, too.

5. Music for Self-Isolation, Frank Horvat, various musicians

Of composer Frank Horvat's three 2021 releases, this double album of works for solo instruments struck a particularly resonant chord during the darkest days of the pandemic. "There is a sense of loss and shared spirit in this music," CBC Music's Paolo Pietropaolo noted upon its release. "It's saying, we might not be able to be together, but let's be together." The album comprises 32 miniatures for a whole range of instruments — tuba, accordion, bassoon, electric guitar and vibraphone among them — written in an engaging, approachable style and played by a talented roster of musicians.

4. Ysaÿe: Six Sonatas for Solo Violin, Kerson Leong

While Eugène Ysaÿe's sonatas for solo violin are cornerstones of the violin repertoire, they can also be somewhat impenetrable for the average listener. Not so in Kerson Leong's hands. He makes perfect sense of them, elucidating their form and drawing you into their subtleties with his impassioned, stimulating playing. There's an affecting lachrymose quality to Leong's Guarneri del Gesu as he ascends his range, heard to especially great effect in the Allemande of Sonata No. 4 (dedicated to Fritz Kreisler). His phrasing has remarkable elasticity and he finds amazing, expressive colours in this performance. Leong has truly "arrived" with this album.

(See also James Ehnes's excellent all-Ysaÿe album, released in April via Onyx Classics.)

3. Chopin: Complete Nocturnes, Jan Lisiecki

Nighttime was not always peaceful for Chopin. "He was sick, he was depressed, and I think he spent lots of sleepless nights," Jan Lisiecki reminded us during a 2017 interview. Now, Lisiecki brings these nocturnal pieces to life in a strikingly original interpretation that emphasizes their emotional complexity. At two hours and three minutes, his recording runs considerably longer than most — Yundi Li whips them off in one hour and 44 minutes — with Lisiecki generally spending extra time on the scores' final pages. (The exquisitely drawn-out ending of Op. 27, No. 2, is just astonishing.) Nocturnes as tone poems? Lisiecki makes a compelling case.

2. Bach: Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, James Ehnes

If the COVID-19 cloud has a silver lining, this album is it. James Ehnes recorded it alone, late at night in his Florida home during the most intense period of the lockdown — part personal therapy, part unexpected opportunity. The time was right to revisit Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, 20 years after recording them for Analekta, the album that nabbed Ehnes his first Juno Award. Do yourself a favour and listen to both versions: one from an emerging talent at the beginning of his career, the other from a musician at the height of his powers, recently named Gramophone's artist of the year.

1. Enargeia, Emily d'Angelo, Das freie Orchester Berlin, Jarkko Riihimäki

Emily d'Angelo seizes your attention with her gleaming mezzo-soprano voice and holds it for every one of her debut album's 52 minutes, traversing a bold program of 12 pieces by women composers: Hildegard von Bingen, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Missy Mazzoli and Sarah Kirkland Snider. Her voice is pure electricity whether she's singing hair-raising arrangements of Gregorian chant, impassioned neo-medieval hymns or post-minimalist expositions incorporating pop music production techniques. Backed by like-minded musicians and a forward-thinking label, d'Angelo offers a hopeful glimpse into the future of classical music.