Classical Junos: who'll win the vocal/choral category?
Who should win? Who will win? We break it down
With the 2018 Juno Awards coming up on March 25, we've been analyzing the nominees in the four classical music categories.
The nominees are:
- Barbara Hannigan with Ludwig Orchestra, Crazy Girl Crazy
- Daniel Taylor with the Trinity Choir, The Tree of Life
- Gerald Finley with Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, In the Stream of Life: Songs by Sibelius
- Isabel Bayrakdarian with Coro Vox Aeterna, Mother of Light: Armenian Hymns & Chants in Praise of Mary
- Philippe Sly and John Charles Britton, Schubert Sessions: Lieder with Guitar
It's a good mix of first-timers (Hannigan and Sly) and veterans (Bayrakdarian and Finley), ancient and modern, sacred and secular, solo and choral. But there's an omission.
Alma oppressa, a collection of arias by Vivaldi and Handel performed by mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne and Luc Beauséjour's Clavecin en Concert, was a standout from 2017. This album triumphed on every level and is on par with the best of this year's nominees. What happened?
Moving on, we break down this year's contenders in the vocal/choral category, including the pros and cons of each album and predictions for who should win and who will win.
1. Barbara Hannigan with Ludwig Orchestra, Crazy Girl Crazy (Alpha Classics)
It's perhaps unfair to the other nominees in this category to point out Hannigan's abilities as both singer and conductor on this album, and yet it does put her in a class by herself.
Pros: Her performance of Berio's Sequenza III for solo voice infests your brain like a swarm of locusts and would almost drive you mad if it weren't for her, well, mad skills. The album's centrepiece is Berg's five-movement Lulu Suite, which Hannigan inhabits rather than performs with Ludwig Orchestra. It's the most organic recording of this work you'll ever hear.
Cons: Less convincing, to our ears, is Bill Elliott's re-imagining of Gershwin's Girl Crazy, which still has some of the awkwardness of crossover despite all good intentions.
Crazy Girl Crazy won a Grammy Award and was selected as one of the New Tork Times' best classical music recordings of 2017, among other distinctions. Will the Junos follow suit?
2. Daniel Taylor with the Trinity Choir, The Tree of Life (Sony Classical)
Taylor and his Trinity Choir have released an album a year for the past three years. The Tree of Life, released in November 2016, is the second in the series and features a cappella pieces spanning two millennia, from Gregorian chant to contemporary works by Arvo Pärt and John Tavener, all on a Christmas theme.
Pros: Comprising a 50-50 mix of Canadian singers and members of the Tallis Scholars, Gabrieli Consort and Monteverdi Choir, the Trinity Choir delivers the requisite laser-beam intonation and blend to all the Renaissance music. They're abetted by the supremely lush acoustic of St. Augustine's Church in London, England. Eight of the album's 17 tracks are compositions by Pärt, and they're performed with hair-raising commitment and a powerful massed sound.
Cons: Sometimes the choir's phrasing lacks elasticity — for example, Elizabeth Poston's "Jesus Christ the Apple Tree," whose opening line lends the album its title, gets a bit stuck on a plodding quarter note.
Taylor and the Trinity Choir got a Juno nomination for their first album, Four Thousand Winter. Is this their year?
3. Gerald Finley, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Edward Gardner, In the Stream of Life: Songs by Sibelius (Chandos)
This album ended up being a touching tribute to Einojuhani Rautavaara, who arranged the seven-song cycle that gives the album its title. Rautavaara died just a few weeks before the recording sessions, turning the whole endeavour into a very personal project for Finley.
Pros: Where to begin? The album's concept alone is noteworthy: giving Sibelius' gorgeous songs for voice and piano the orchestral treatment — and new life. We love how Finley shades his voice in response to the different orchestral colours: at the beginning of "Die Stille Stadt," he's essentially an extension of the woodwind section; in "Jag är ett träd," he rides atop a brass choir to heroic effect. And throughout, he sings expressively while observing every last detail in the score. (It will do your Canadian soul good to listen to his beautiful rendition of "The Diamond on the March Snow.")
Cons: The only objection one could raise is the fact that 30 minutes of the music on this album is orchestral (beautifully played, we might add), so it may lose some clout as a contender in this category.
Three-time winner Finley last hoisted a Juno in 2015 for Schubert's Winterreise. Will he do it again with Sibelius?
4. Isabel Bayrakdarian with Coro Vox Aeterna, Mother of Light: Armenian Hymns & Chants in Praise of Mary (Delos)
It's been over a decade since soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian pulled off her Juno four-peat, winning the vocal category yearly from 2004 to 2007. She's had a few nominations since then, her most recent being for this album of Armenian sacred music conceived as a tribute to her mother.
Pros: Beautifully arranged by Serouj Kradjian for soprano, cello and choir (with a bit of percussion), these songs unfold hypnotically, their repetitive structure surely intended to accentuate the devotional. Bayrakdarian sings them with utmost sincerity, wresting hopefulness from their predominantly minor modes.
Cons: Because the vocal lines are mostly confined within an octave or so, their range sometimes seems a bit low for Bayrakdarian. We missed hearing her gleaming high notes.
Will she add a fifth Juno to her shelf to keep the other four company?
5. Philippe Sly and John Charles Britton, Schubert Sessions: Lieder with Guitar (Analekta)
Now and then it's wonderful to hear art song performed with guitar instead of piano, and baritone Philippe Sly and guitarist John Charles Britton make a convincing case for the combo on this all-Schubert collection.
Pros: What you may lose in power and colour, you gain in intimacy with the guitar, and that serves these Schubert gems really well. Sly scales his voice accordingly, at times practically whispering the words in your ear, at others using intensity rather than sheer volume to add excitement. Part of the credit goes to the recording engineer at Analekta who created the perfect atmosphere for this to happen. Overall, the performance is touching and idiomatic.
Cons: At times, a distracting pop inflection drifts into Sly's phrasing, snapping us out of a reverie he has otherwise done such a good job inducing.
It's a winning performance. But will it win the Juno?
Gerald Finley's flawless Sibelius project is the album we've returned to most often for repeated listening. It deserves the Juno.
Barbara Hannigan's Crazy Girl Crazy is a tour de force with momentum on its side. The Juno Award will go to her.
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.