Classical Junos: who should win the solo/chamber category?

It's a talented field and too close to call, but we're going to try.

It's a talented field and too close to call, but we're going to try

Blake Pouliot is a graduate of the Royal Conservatory of Music's Young Artists Performance Academy in Toronto and the Colburn School in Los Angeles. (Jess Fasano)

To prepare for the 2019 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:

  • Andrew Wan, Charles Richard-Hamelin, Beethoven: Violin Sonatas Nos. 6, 7 & 8
  • Angela Hewitt, Scarlatti: Sonatas Vol. 2
  • Blake Pouliot, Hsin-I Huang, Ravel & Debussy: Sonates
  • ​Gryphon Trio: The End of Flowers: Works by Clarke & Ravel
  • Marc-André Hamelin: Schubert: Piano Sonata in B-Flat Major, D. 960; Four Impromptus, D. 935

Note how this category is a showdown this year between Analekta Records (three nominations) and Hyperion Records (two nominations). Whereas a number of the albums nominated in the large ensemble category are live recordings, all five nominees in the solo/chamber category are studio recordings, and the sound quality is consistently high. Two of the nominees are first-timers (Wan and Pouliot), Richard-Hamelin is enjoying his second nomination, while Gryphon Trio, Hamelin and Hewitt are Juno veterans with 11, 16 and 17 nominations, respectively.

It's a deserving bunch. Who's missing?


If there were room for a couple more nominees, we'd have liked to see Eybler Quartet's Beethoven String Quartets, Op. 18, Nos. 1-3 on the list. With their adherence to Beethoven's controversial original metronome marks, the members of Eybler Quartet got us to hear those familiar pieces in a new way, which is always exciting. Another great listen was Lachrimae, a collection of music by John Dowland played by Nigel North (lute) and Les Voix humaines (viol consort). We surrendered ourselves to the undulating phrases of these pavanes and galliards, so seductively played.

Alas, there's only room for five. Here's our breakdown of this year's nominees, including predictions for who should win and who will win.

1. Andrew Wan, Charles Richard-Hamelin, Beethoven: Violin Sonatas Nos. 6, 7 & 8

This September 2018 release marked the culmination of phase 1 of Wan and Richard-Hamelin's project to perform and record the complete cycle of Beethoven's 10 sonatas for violin and piano. Their partners in the endeavour are the Arte Musica Foundation, which presents the duo in concert at Montreal's Bourgie Hall, and Analekta Records, which holds recording sessions and produces the albums. It's a winning formula, as Vol. 1 of the series attests.

Andrew Wan and Charles Richard-Hamelin will give the 2nd concert in their Beethoven Violin Sonata cycle at Montreal's Bourgie Hall on May 15, 2019. (Élizabeth Delage)

Here, they play the three sonatas Beethoven published in 1803 as his Op. 30, works poised on the cusp: No. 6 is the most classical of the three; No. 7 the most Romantic; No. 8 falls stylistically somewhere in the middle.

Richard-Hamelin applies a firm tone to the ominous piano opening of the seventh sonata, to which Wan replies with bite and assertive melodic leaps. Then, a translucent violin timbre draws you into the second movement's intimate tête-à-tête.

In Sonata No. 8, both musicians have fun with the frenzy of the first movement's churning compound meter before taking turns with the gracious melody of the second movement. A rustic dance, the third movement finds Richard-Hamelin setting the pace hurdy-gurdy-style while Wan fiddles away with abandon. It's a romp.

By contrast, the sixth sonata, which opens the album, is perfectly genteel. There's uncanny consensus on the phrasing in the outer movements, while the Adagio is the album's highlight with Wan providing nuanced colours and Richard-Hamelin transforming his piano part into a languorous Nocturne.

Wan and Richard-Hamelin form a winning duo. But will they win the Juno?

2. Angela Hewitt, Scarlatti: Sonatas Vol. 2

While her global Bach Odyssey is ongoing, Hewitt has also been toiling away on two other projects for Hyperion Records: she's eight albums into the complete Beethoven piano sonatas, and she has released a second volume in her exploration of the keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, the latter of which got this Juno nod.

Angela Hewitt's Bach Odyssey sees her performing all the keyboard works of J.S. Bach in a series of 12 recitals between 2016 and 2020 in London, New York, Ottawa, Tokyo, and Florence. (K. Saunders)

Hewitt released 16 Scarlatti sonatas on Vol. 1 of this series in 2016; Vol. 2 presents 17 more. At this rate, it would take more than 60 years to record all 555 sonatas by Scarlatti, and while Hewitt's stamina is legendary, we're going to assume that's not her goal. And therefore, her choice of sonatas for each of these releases takes on an added significance — which ones will she record, and why? (Her notes on the process are, as ever, illuminating.)

For this album, Hewitt was drawn to the sonatas with surprising elements, which she evidently enjoys accentuating. For instance, she leans deliciously on the bass line of K206, the longest piece on the album, to underscore an unusual shift from E major to E-flat minor. In K429, the absence of any melody to speak of does not deter her from making beautiful sense of this barcarolle, with its suspenseful pauses and descending runs. In K82, she treats us to one of the few Scarlatti sonatas that's written in fugal form. Of course, Hewitt knows fugues and she executes this one's 3/8 meter with characteristic clarity and elegance.

Are the tempos a bit cautious? Maybe, although as audiences we've come to expect breakneck speed in Scarlatti's sonatas, which doesn't necessarily cast them in the best light. The ones Hewitt has chosen for this album reveal how wide-ranging these pieces are, in fact.

Hewitt has been nominated in this category six times since her last win in 2005. Will this album turn the tide?

​3. Blake Pouliot, Hsin-I Huang, Ravel & Debussy: Sonates

This goes down as one of the best debut albums we've heard in a long time, and it was just one accomplishment among many for Pouliot in 2018: he won the Women's Musical Club of Toronto's 2018 Career Development Award and the Virginia Parker Prize, and his loan of the Canada Council's 1729 Guarneri del Gesù violin, valued at $6 million, was renewed for another three-year term.

In November 2018, Blake Pouliot (right) played Sibelius's Violin Concerto with the OSM conducted by David Afkham (left). (Blake Pouliot/Facebook)

It's on that instrument that he recorded these works by Ravel and Debussy, alongside his associate from the Colburn School in Los Angeles, pianist Hsin-I Huang. Pouliot's effusive personality is well-suited to Ravel's Tzigane, which he plays with raffish slides and perfectly tuned double stops. He and Huang make Ravel's familiar G Major Sonata sound brand new, with technical brilliance and astute characterizations throughout.

Some violinists employ an austere tone for Debussy's moody Violin Sonata, his last completed work. Not Pouliot, whose rich, vibrant timbre brings greater intensity to its first movement and accentuates the impish nature of the second. He and Huang use the episodic structure of the third movement to tell a story so vivid it stays with you long after the music has ended.

Pouliot is on a roll. Will it continue with his first Juno Award?

4. Gryphon Trio, The End of Flowers: Works by Clarke & Ravel

Released in January 2018 to celebrate Gryphon Trio's 25th anniversary, this album pairs two works composed approximately 100 years ago: Maurice Ravel's famous Piano Trio in A Minor from 1914 and Clarke's Piano Trio, written in 1921. The album's title, The End of Flowers, refers to the devastation caused by World War I. "Completed within the early frenzy and aftermath of this bleak chapter in human history, these brilliant works were not intended as memorials but stand as a testament to the enduring power of life and art," writes Gryphon Trio cellist Roman Borys in the album's notes.

Gryphon Trio will take over the summer classical music program at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity beginning in 2020. (Bo Huang)

The album begins with Clarke's trio, the heavier of the two. Pianist Jamie Parker establishes a violent mood with the dissonant machine-gun theme that opens the work and ties its three movements together. Lyrical passages come as a relief — for instance, in the second movement, when the strings shift to harmonics for a delicate accompanying motif while the piano introduces a simple melody, it's like a ray of light. The musicians do a fine job expressing the third movement's conflicting ideas of optimism and regret, the latter intruding in the form of a mournful bugle call.

In Ravel's ingenious trio, the musicians display the full range of their artistry. Props to violinist Annalee Patipatanakoon for her heartfelt restraint while introducing the lovely second theme of the first movement. There are shades of La Valse in their performance of the sprightly second movement, and warmly spun lines in the Passacaille. The final movement turns the three musicians loose in a rollicking sonata form in which they revel in electrifying tremolos, bombastic piano chords and the bouncy ride of an irregular meter. It's quite a climax!

Gryphon Trio's 25th anniversary was a party. Will the celebrations extend to a Juno win?

5. Marc-André Hamelin, Schubert: Piano Sonata in B-Flat Major, D. 960; Four Impromptus, D. 935

Can you believe Hamelin made more than 75 albums for Hyperion Records without recording a note of music by Franz Schubert? It's a situation he amended in April with this highly anticipated record pairing Schubert's final piano sonata and his second set of Impromptus. "I could have done it before," Hamelin told us when the album came out. "It wasn't just a question of my developing a relationship with the work, it was also waiting until the trust of the public in what I do, in what I could do with it, would become greater and greater." It's safe to say he has earned that trust, and then some.

'This particular CD almost means more to me than everything I've ever done, combined. Because of what the music means to me.' — Marc-André Hamelin (Sim Cannety-Clarke)

Hamelin, who's been playing the Sonata in B-flat Major in concert for decades, uses a remarkably restrained tempo for the opening movement, not only drawing attention to detail but also preparing the way for Schubert's varied treatment of the wistful main theme. Sensitive souls should proceed with caution in the second movement, whose A section Hamelin imbues with a feeling of inexorable regret — emotional stuff. A light touch and perfectly controlled dynamics make the third movement scherzo glow from within, and in the fourth movement, Hamelin unites the seemingly disparate ideas with intelligent timing and awesome technique.

In Schubert's Op. 142, which Hamelin says "is probably as close to a sonata as it could be without actually being one," he invites us to hear the four Impromptus as a unified work, one without the tragic overtones of the final sonata. He plays down the sturm und drang of the first Impromptu in favour of a more tender interpretation. In the second Impromptu, we love the silky homogeneity of the chords and the lilting effect of his agogic treatment of the main theme. The variations of the third have all the charm of a strophic Lied, while Hamelin turns the scherzo and trio of the fourth into a demonic dance seemingly summoned from the pages of Goethe.

Fans seized this album when it was released. Will Hamelin seize a Juno trophy?

Our predictions:

Should win

We got swept up in the excitement surrounding rising violin star Pouliot. His debut album is a joy to listen to and we think it deserves the Juno.

Will win

The Juno jury will be understandably wowed by Hamelin's Schubert statement, and the award will go to him.


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