Classical Junos: who should win the large ensemble category?
We break down the nominees for this hotly contested award
The nominees for the 2018 Juno Awards have been announced and over the coming weeks we're going to dig into each of the four classical categories, beginning with classical album of the year: large ensemble or soloist(s) with large ensemble accompaniment.
This year's nominees are:
- Arion Baroque Orchestra and soloists, Rebelles Baroques
- James Ehnes, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Andrew Manze, Beethoven Violin Concerto
- Jan Lisiecki, NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester, Krzysztof Urbanski, Chopin: Works for Piano & Orchestra
- Johannes Moser, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Andrew Manze, Elgar & Tchaikovsky
- Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, Evelyn Glennie, Alexander Mickelthwate, The Shaman & Arctic Symphony
Because of the resources that go into producing orchestral recordings, stakes are especially high in this category. And since eligibility is based on the size of the group — not stylistic period — we've got baroque concertos alongside full-blown 19th-century orchestral works and contemporary symphonic compositions all vying for the same trophy.
It's a well-rounded field of nominees, comprising some of our favourite albums of the past year. Before we take a closer look at each, including a prediction on who will win and who should win, we need to point out an omission.
We were hoping to see the self-titled debut album of the Canadian National Brass Project among the nominees in this category. Independently released — and a labour of love if ever there was one — this beautifully produced record not only blew us away but also heralded the arrival of an exciting new entity, the brass orchestra, on the Canadian music scene. We hope to hear more from this group in the near future.
Now, onto this year's five nominees.
1. Arion Baroque Orchestra and soloists, Rebelles baroques (early-music.com)
Pictured above, Montreal's Arion Baroque Orchestra began as a period-instrument quartet in 1981 that morphed into an orchestra specializing in 18th-century repertoire. On Rebelles baroques, they present us with concertos by Georg Philipp Telemann and Johann Joachim Quantz — good compositions, but the strength of this album is derived primarily from the exceptional playing. Flutist Claire Guimond's sound is as velvety now as it was when she co-founded Arion those many years ago. And there's an appealing camaraderie between her and Alexa Raine-Wright, Guimond's former student, when they unite on Quantz's Concerto for Two Flutes to conclude the album.
The highlight, however, is Jean-Louis Blouin's bewitching viola on Telemann's four-movement Concerto in G. What a thrill to hear this stalwart of Quebec's early music scene in a starring role, stylishly negotiating the melodic twists and turns of the fast movements while leaning deliciously on the long melodic lines of the slow ones.
Alexander Weimann moves everything along from his seat at the harpsichord, and coaxes a surprisingly plush sound from the 13 members of the orchestra, especially in Telemann's E-Major Concerto for Strings.
Arion has had a number of Juno nominations over the years, winning the vocal category in 2013 for Prima Donna with soprano Karina Gauvin. Will they get their first win in the large ensemble category for Rebelles baroques? It's a long shot, since this is closer to chamber than orchestral music, but not out of the question due to the phenomenal music-making.
2. James Ehnes, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Andrew Manze, Beethoven Violin Concerto (Onyx Classics)
The most decorated classical musician in Juno history returned with two albums in 2017: one getting nominated in the solo or chamber category the other in the soloist with large ensemble category. (It's the eighth time he's nabbed nominations in both.)
In the six months since Onyx released James Ehnes's entry in the latter category — Beethoven's Violin Concerto with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic — it has become our go-to recording of this iconic work. Because Ehnes's sound is so appealing, his intonation so precise and technique so secure, there's nothing to distract you from Beethoven's music itself. It's a performance that serves the score, and not the personality of the soloist, which seems to be Ehnes's guiding principle.
This is not to say there aren't some striking personal touches on this album, which also includes Beethoven's two Romances and Schubert's Rondo. For instance, the trills in the concerto's first movement are so perfectly pianissimo, Ehnes draws you right into the texture of the orchestra, as though by sleight of hand. And is it an illusion, or does he play with a darker, more melancholy sound in the two Romances? It is, in fact, Ehnes's mastery of mood at play.
This album is the happy result of Ehnes's tenure as artist in residence with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, where conductor Andrew Manze, himself a fine violinist, makes the perfect partner.
Will it bring Ehnes his 12th Juno statuette? History would say yes, but there's some stiff competition.
3. Jan Lisiecki, NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester, Krzysztof Urbanski, Chopin: Works for Piano & Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)
And that competition comes primarily in the shape of 22-year-old pianist Jan Lisiecki, who released his fourth and most ambitious album to date on Deutsche Grammophon in 2017.
We got seriously hooked on this recording of rarely played works by Chopin: Rondo à la Krakowiak, Op. 14, Fantasy on Polish Airs, Op. 13, and the better-known Variations on "La ci darem la mano," Op. 2, chosen because Lisiecki feels there's something new for him to say, musically, about them.
In fact, he raises these relatively obscure works to top-drawer status with his thoroughly idiomatic playing. It's all there: the rubato, the nostalgia for Poland, the singing style, captured in crystalline, opulent sound by the DG recording engineers.
Krzysztof Urbanski, principal guest conductor of the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester, never upstages the soloist and instead crafts round sonorities and the perfect colours to complement Lisiecki's performance.
Lisiecki's three previous Juno nominations went unrewarded. The fourth time is bound to be a charm, but there's a dark horse to consider.
4. Johannes Moser, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Andrew Manze, Elgar & Tchaikovsky (Pentatone)
That dark horse is cellist Johannes Moser, who has finally caught the Juno Awards' attention.
In a way, this nomination for his 2017 recording of Elgar's Cello Concerto and Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations can be viewed as an acknowledgement of a whole string of fine orchestral albums he has released over the past decade, including 2015's stellar Dvorák/Lalo release and 2012's Shostakovich/Britten record.
Building on the momentum of his 2017 ECHO Klassik Award for instrumentalist (cello) of the year for his recent Rachmaninoff/Prokofiev collaboration with pianist Andrei Korobeinikov, Moser is a strong contender for his first Juno with his latest album. In Elgar's concerto, he pulls an impressive range of colours from his 1694 Andrea Guarneri cello, from the growls of the opening measures to the electrifying semiquavers of the second movement; from the ever-shifting shades of the Adagio's long lines, to the exquisite più lento section near the end of the fourth movement, in which he channels a burnished contralto.
In the Rococo Variations (original version), Moser and conductor Manze relish the various moods and characters that fly by in Tchaikovsky's 20-minute score. And stick around until the end of the album or you'll miss their rollicking take on Tchaikovsky's Pezzo capriccioso, one of three encore's included.
Moser deserves the recognition that comes with a Juno Award. But will last year's winner in this category stand in his way?
5. Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, Evelyn Glennie, Alexander Mickelthwate, The Shaman & Arctic Symphony (Centrediscs)
The 2017 Juno Award for best classical album: large ensemble or soloist(s) with large ensemble accompaniment went to the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra for Going Home Star – Truth and Reconciliation. They're back in 2018 with a nomination for their recording of two works by Vincent Ho, The Shaman and Arctic Symphony, both written during Ho's tenure as composer in residence with the WSO, from 2007 to 2014.
A three-movement concerto for percussion and orchestra, The Shaman features soloist Evelyn Glennie. "To me, Dame Evelyn is like a modern-day shaman," writes Ho in the liner notes. His concerto is a showcase for her gifts, ably abetted by Mickelthwate and the WSO.
Ho was inspired to write Arctic Symphony following his stint as an "artist onboard" for a tour of Canada's Arctic on the CCGS Amundsen. "We visited many Indigenous communities to learn about their culture and how the current state of the environment had impacted their way of life," he writes. Arctic Symphony is a distillation of that experience, from the sounds of the Amundsen's motor to the gusting Arctic wind, to the strains of "Qauma," an Igloolik song celebrating the arrival of spring. The Nunavut Sivuniksavut Performers join the ensemble to sing the latter. A more vivid evocation of people and places you're unlikely to hear.
Recorded in concert, and later remastered, this Centrediscs release captures all the excitement — and some of the rough edges — of a live performance. But will it capture the Juno?
Here are our predictions.
The WSO's album creates an enthralling sound world, but the live recording suffers in comparison to the other studio-produced nominees. While Arion's performance and recorded sound couldn't be better, their album seems out of place among symphony orchestras. Ehnes and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic make a convincing case with their Beethoven, however, isn't it time for a newcomer? That leaves Moser and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande on one hand, and Lisiecki's Chopin on the other. For its concept and flawless execution — not to mention the hours we've spent listening to it — Lisiecki's album deserves to win.
We predict the jury will agree and give Lisiecki his first Juno Award.