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Classical Junos: who's going to win the vocal/choral category?

We take a deep dive into the nominees for this hotly contested award.

We take a deep dive into the nominees for this hotly contested award

Ayre, a song cycle by Osvaldo Golijov, was recorded live at the Ismaili Centre in Toronto in November 2016. (Darryl Block)

With the 2019 Juno Awards coming up on March 17, we've been analyzing the nominees in the four classical music categories.

So far, we've looked at the large ensemble category and the solo/chamber music category. Now, we turn our attention to the nominees for classical album of the year: vocal or choral.

​This year's nominees are:

  • Barbara Hannigan, Reinbert de Leeuw, Vienna: Fin de siècle
  • Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, soloists, Kent Nagano, Bernstein: A Quiet Place
  • Elmer Iseler Singers, Epoque Chamber Orchestra, Sinfonia UK Collective, Patricia O'Callaghan, David Braid: Corona Divinae Misericordiae
  • Joyce El Khoury, the Hallé Orchestra, Carlo Rizzi, Écho
  • Miriam Khalil, Against the Grain Ensemble, Ayre: Live

Last year's winner in this category, soprano Hannigan, is vying for a two-peat with her recital of art song from the Second Viennese School. A full opera for soloists, chorus and orchestra, the MSO's double album is the most expansive of the five nominees. Two of the albums (David Braid: Corona Divinae Misericordiae and Ayre: Live) stretch the bounds of conventional classical recording with electronic elements and multi-tracking. Sopranos El Khoury and Khalil represent the newcomers in this category, enjoying their first Juno nominations this year. It's an eclectic group. Who's missing?

Snubbed

Gabriel Fauré: Complete Songs for Voice and Piano, released in May 2018 and featuring some of Quebec's best voices, was a revelation. Olivier Godin, who plays an 1859 Érard piano on all 108 songs, is the fil conducteur of this handsomely bound four-CD set that serves not only as a reference for lovers of French art song, but also a thoroughly enjoyable listening experience. We were expecting it to receive a Juno nomination.

Moving on, here's our breakdown of this year's nominated albums, including pros and cons for each, and a prediction for who should win and who will win the Juno Award.

1. Barbara Hannigan, Reinbert de Leeuw, Vienna: Fin de siècle


Audiences in Toronto may have attended soprano Hannigan and pianist de Leeuw's performance of these songs by Wolf, Zemlinsky, Alma Mahler, Schoenberg, Webern and Berg at Koerner Hall in November 2017, ahead of this album's release. The intimacy of this repertoire contrasts with the overt theatricality we witnessed on Crazy Girl Crazy, for which she won Juno and Grammy awards last year. It's a privilege to behold both sides of her artistry.

Pros: This recital zeroes in on a pivotal time in Vienna — the final flourishing of tonal harmony and the early days of atonal music — viewed through the lens of German poetry. This is music that makes you think as much as it makes you feel, which of course is Hannigan's wheelhouse. Since many of the songs never rise above a piano dynamic, we appreciate the proximity of the recording. It enables the musicians to get inside your head. Hannigan's silvery tone — at times straightened out to be completely white — is especially suited to the austere texture of Webern's five Dehmel settings. These are perfection. We're sort of obsessed with pianist de Leeuw, who's 80, and is evidently totally tuned to Hannigan's wavelength.

Cons: In songs that require a fuller tone (for example, the Berg and Wolf cycles), pitch wavered at times. And overall, diction could be crisper.

Fin de siècle is a tour de force. Will it secure a second Juno for Hannigan?

2. Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, soloists, Kent Nagano, Bernstein: A Quiet Place


The Montreal Symphony Orchestra's primary contribution to the much-celebrated Bernstein centenary was this concert performance of Bernstein's 1983 opera A Quiet Place, which was recorded and released by Decca last June. They perform Garth Edwin Sunderland's 2013 chamber arrangement of the work that lies somewhere between Bernstein's one-act original version and his later three-act expansion that incorporated the music of Trouble in Tahiti, of which A Quiet Place is a sequel.

Pros: This album captures all the excitement and few of the compromises of a live recording. Unfamiliar with this late Bernstein work, we appreciated conductor Nagano's authoritative approach — he studied with Bernstein from 1984 to 1990 — which gives bristling energy to the dramatic passages and expansiveness to the lyrical ones. The reduced MSO is a virtuoso ensemble. This opera is essentially a domestic drama built on a colourful libretto by Stephen Wadsworth (including some F-bombs) and the youthful cast members appear to relish their roles, which are, without exception, convincingly sung. We especially loved tenor Joseph Kaiser's detailed incarnation of François, a Québecois character, complete with bright tone and a perfect franglais accent.

Cons: Our only disappointment was that the chorus is too far away in the audio mix.

With A Quiet Place, will the MSO return to its Juno happy place?

3. Elmer Iseler Singers, Epoque Chamber Orchestra, Sinfonia UK Collective, Patricia O'Callaghan, David Braid: Corona Divinae Misericordiae


Pianist/composer David Braid has eight previous Juno nominations and three wins in the jazz and instrumental categories. He has received his ninth nomination for this recording of his debut classical composition, a sacred choral work based on the writings of Faustina Kowalska (1905-38), a Polish nun and mystic. It's performed by an international roster of musicians, including Elmer Iseler Singers, soprano Patricia O'Callaghan and Sinfonia UK Collective, with whom Braid is artist in residence.

Pros: This is a strong performance of an appealing and accessible work, its musical language reminiscent of Carl Orff, Henryk Górecki and Igor Stravinsky. The recorded sound is intriguing, invoking the recording studio rather than the more typical church or concert hall. Soprano O'Callaghan proves to be a riveting soloist, using straight tone to give direction to her lines, and observing the composer's indications for non-Western phrasing in "Credo, Part 2" to underscore early Christianity's inroads into the Asian subcontinent. Elmer Iseler Singers have vibrant tone and laser-beam intonation, accentuating Braid's rich harmonies. The shorter solos are beautifully rendered, too.

Cons: An English accent occasionally finds its way into the Latin diction, which is a bit distracting. With a total duration of only 27 minutes, this record seems more like an EP than a complete album.

How will the Juno jury react to Braid's first foray into classical music? 

4. Joyce El Khoury, the Hallé Orchestra, Carlo Rizzi, Écho


Orchestral aria recitals from Canadian singers are few and far between, so we greeted this one with enthusiasm. Here, we find soprano El Khoury in fine form, channeling 19th-century diva Julie Dorus-Gras, the creator of a number of roles in operas by Meyerbeer, Donizetti, Halévy and Berlioz. It's a nice mix of gems ("Regnava nel silenzio" from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor) and rarities ("Jours de mon enfance" from Le Pré aux clercs by Ferdinand Hérold).

Pros: El Khoury has at her disposal the full range of vocal effects demanded by this repertoire, from beautifully spun pianissimos above the staff to effortless coloratura to vibrant tone that cuts through orchestral tuttis. And what's more, she's got the musical and theatrical instincts to deploy them for maximum effect. Some listeners will find a similarity between El Khoury and Maria Callas — not just in terms of timbre, but also intensity. Eight of the 10 selections are French, and El Khoury's diction is impeccable. A bonus: she's joined by clarion-toned tenor Michael Spyres on the great duet from Lucia

Cons: With headsets, we noticed a few rough edges that an additional recording session and another round of edits would have smoothed out.

On Écho, El Khoury is the ultimate prima donna. Will she win her primo Juno?

5. Miriam Khalil, Against the Grain Ensemble, Ayre: Live


Recorded live during performances at Toronto's Ismaili Centre, this album comprises Osvaldo Golijov's 45-minute song cycle Ayre, composed in 2004. Its 11 songs traverse Arabic, Hebrew, Sardinian and Sephardic texts and tunes and are written in a folk idiom with accompaniment that includes a klezmer band and electronics. Soprano Khalil coached Ayre with the composer at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity before singing it in Canada, the U.S. and Argentina. This is the first album for the record label of Against the Grain Theatre, of which Khalil is co-director.

Pros: If you're among those who attended one of Khalil's performances of this work, then you already know what we discovered upon hitting play on this album: this is a gripping, transporting and totally immersive experience. It ranges from ethereally beautiful ("Nani," a Sephardic lullaby) to erotic ("Suéltate las Cintas," an Argentinian love song) to intentionally ugly ("Tancas serradas a muru," an 18th-century Sardinian anti-war anthem). Khalil's interpretive commitment is unassailable. Honourable mention to harpist Kristan Toczko for some wonderful solo playing, too. 

Cons: For a live recording, the sound is clear and nicely balanced, and the electronic elements are beautifully integrated, but we'd have liked to hear more space around the acoustic instruments.

This album represents a beautiful collective effort. Will it collect a Juno?

Here are our predictions:

Should win

All five nominated albums impressed us for many reasons, but the MSO's ambitious recording of Bernstein's A Quiet Place succeeds on every level. We think it deserves the Juno Award.

Will win

The Juno jury will agree, and give the MSO its 16th Juno Award.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story listed Lydia Adams as conductor of the Elmer Iseler Singers. In fact, she was not involved in that album.
    Mar 11, 2019 11:27 AM ET

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