Looking to support Canada's classical musicians? Here are 15 new releases to buy or stream
Highly recommended for your listening pleasure — and to give our classical recording artists a boost
Around the world, the performing arts have been dealt a brutal blow by the COVID-19 pandemic, with social-distancing measures putting an end to public gatherings for the foreseeable future.
While this comes as a big disappointment for audiences, its effect on the livelihood of artists has been devastating.
One way individuals can help support Canada's classical musicians is to buy (preferably) or stream their records. In the past few months alone, many Canadian ensembles and soloists have released new albums, and it has never been more important for fans to pay attention.
Below, we've rounded up 15 excellent new Canadian classical releases. Click on the album titles for more information. If you can afford to do so, buy or stream them for your enjoyment, yes, but also to help support our musicians at this critical time.
Franz Schubert: Music for Violin and Piano, Duo Concertante
Of the major classical composers, Schubert may be the trickiest to get right due to the deep emotions that lurk just beneath (and regularly break through) his music's genteel surface. On this, their 11th album, the husband-and-wife duo of violinist Nancy Dahn and pianist Timothy Steeves strike the right balance, playing with uncanny unity of purpose, whether they're spinning a heart-rending melody (the Andante of the Fantasy in C Major is especially beautiful) or bringing the ruckus (the Rondo in B Minor builds to a thrilling conclusion).
Ludovico Einaudi: Chamber Music, Cameron Crozman, Molinari Quartet, Pentaèdre
We've come to associate Ludovic Einaudi with lush, neo-minimalist TV and film scores, but in fact that is only one facet of his compositional output. On this new ATMA Classique release, we discover another: seriously good chamber music. Cameron Crozman casts a spell with Canto for solo cello; Molinari Quartet accentuates the tension and release in Corale, an 18-minute poem for string quartet; and Pentaèdre plays two works for winds, of which Zoom is especially effective and haunting.
In paradisum: a Fauré Recital, Vol. 2, Louis Lortie
Two volumes in, Louis Lortie is making a convincing case for the solo piano music of Gabriel Fauré, which, apart from certain Nocturnes and Ballades, remains relatively obscure. On this release, he lures you in with beautifully paced piano transcriptions of "Pie Jesu" and "In paradisum" from Fauré's popular Requiem, and then wows you with a nicely conceived recital of gems (the Op. 19 Ballade, the Op. 73 Theme and Variations) and discoveries (a few delicious Barcarolles). Phrases are shaped judiciously with rubato and dynamic control, and there are some breathtaking passages of finger work that will leave you in awe.
The Spirit and the Dust, Beverley Johnston, Marc Djokic, Amici Ensemble
This recent Centrediscs release finds percussionist Beverley Johnston in fine form — and excellent company — playing marimba and vibraphone, and in one piece singing, too. The album is a survey of pieces by Dinuk Wijeratne, Christos Hatzis, Norbert Palej and Richard Mascall, and they couldn't be more contrasting, one from the next. To borrow Johnston's expression, Wijeratne's four-movement suite, The Spirit and the Dust, is a "marimba masterpiece." In Ser con Él, Palej requires Johnston to sing and narrate as well as play, and wow, does she commit! There are warm tango sounds in Hatzis's Parlor Music, while Mascall's Quantum Hologram is a hoe-down with expert fiddling from Marc Djokic.
Massenet: Thaïs, Erin Wall, Joshua Hopkins, Andrew Staples, Nathan Berg, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, Andrew Davis
Out of the COVID-19 fog has appeared this thrilling concert performance of Massenet's opera Thaïs, recorded last November at Roy Thomson Hall. "The opera's beguiling music and its undeniable grandeur and opulence belie the personal, emotional drama at its heart," reflects Andrew Davis, the TSO's interim artistic director, via press release. That drama is fleshed out by some very fine singing, with the duets between Erin Wall's Thaïs and Joshua Hopkins' Athanaël providing all the feels. Honourable mention to violinist Jonathan Crow for an impeccable "Méditation."
Le Rappel des Oiseaux, Luc Beauséjour
Luc Beauséjour is back to remind us yet again how marvellous the harpsichord is with this recital on the theme of birds, comprising character pieces from 18th-century France. While clucks, warbles and chirps provided inspiration for Couperin, Rameau, Daquin and their contemporaries, their pieces go beyond mere imitation, affording Beauséjour the opportunity for expressive, elegant and at times flamboyant playing. His 1981 Yves Beaupré harpsichord was beautifully recorded inside the Église St-Augustin-de-Mirabel, northwest of Montreal.
Franz Asplymayr: Six Quartets, Op. 2, Eybler Quartet
"We'll play this new album from the Eybler Quartet while working from home," we thought to ourselves, expecting it to provide unobtrusive background music. Well, that didn't go exactly as planned: we were too distracted by the myriad characters — imps, oafs, courtiers, angels, dandies — who appear with each passing movement of the six string quartets presented here. Of course, we knew nothing of Asplmayr, a contemporary of Mozart and Haydn, but thanks to the inquisitiveness of the Eyblers and their lithe, lively playing, we're converts.
Beethoven: The Complete Piano Concertos, Stewart Goodyear, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Andrew Constantine
From the pianist known for his Beethoven sonata marathons (and his excellent recordings of Beethoven's complete sonatas and Diabelli Variations) comes this three-CD set comprising the five piano concertos, no doubt intended to celebrate #Beethoven250, which has been so rudely interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. This album arrives as a silver lining, with impressive, heartfelt playing from Goodyear, and generally brisk tempi from conductor Constantine, which help accentuate what Goodyear calls the "unbridled joy" of these war horses.
Constellations, Canadian National Brass Project
After amazing us with their self-produced, self-titled debut album a few years ago, the members of the Canadian National Brass Project have now released a followup, Constellations, on Analekta Records and it's a stunner. As you'd expect from a brass orchestra, there are moments of tremendous power (the final minutes of their arrangement of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture will nail you to your seat), but you'll also be surprised by their restraint and nuance when they play Ola Gjielo's "Sanctus," which is simply hair-raising.
Marin Marais: Badinages, Mélisande Corriveau, Eric Milnes
Unless you're a baroque music connoisseur, you likely aren't that familiar with the music of Marin Marais. But his music forms the backbone of viol repertoire — he wrote five volumes of suites — and viola da gambist Mélisande Corriveau and harpsichordist Eric Milnes play selections from Book IV on their engrossing new album, Badinages. They perform with such pathos and abandon that you might think there's improvisation involved, but no. "We are so lucky with Marais that he provides lots of information in the music as to ornaments — enflés and one- or two-finger vibrato among them," explained Corriveau by email. Listen and be amazed:
Mélodies passagères, Marianne Lambert, Julien LeBlanc
Here's a fine musical partnership that has finally been captured on record. The album takes its name from a cycle of five French-language songs by Samuel Barber, which soprano Marianne Lambert brings to life with a range of vocal colours — she makes expressive use of straight tone — and rhythmic precision. There are lots of sparkling high notes in songs by Delibes, Bizet and Granados, with pianist LeBlanc uncannily matching Lambert's every breath. They recorded a video of the album's opening song, "Psyché" by Émile Paladilhe, at Montreal's Chapelle historique du Bon-Pasteur, and it perfectly captures their synergy.
Henryk Górecki: Complete String Quartets, Molinari Quartet
It's been 10 years since the death of Henryk Górecki, and this double album from Montreal's Molinari Quartet reminds us of the conflicting emotions contained within his music, in which lyricism abounds without ever being fully expressed. Soaring melodies are often harmonized at the interval of a minor ninth, for instance, or played over accompanying chords in a distant key. The musicians of the Molinari Quartet capitalize on these destabilizing, disruptive elements to underline the struggle between light and dark forces that characterizes so much of Górecki's music and keeps us returning to it.
Jacques Hétu: Concertos, Jean-Philippe Sylvestre, Orchestre Symphonique de Laval, Alain Trudel
2020 also marks the 10th anniversary of the death of Canadian composer Jacques Hétu, whom the Orchestre symphonique de Laval commemorates with this excellent survey. Jean-Philippe Sylvestre is the ideal soloist for Hétu's Piano Concerto No. 2, matching the orchestral tuttis with brawn in the outer movements, and making the melodic line sing in the middle one. Hétu's Trombone Concerto, from 1995, was written for Alain Trudel, so who better to play — and conduct — this performance? Shout out to the musicians of the OSL for their detailed playing and for creating an appropriately expectant atmosphere in this piece.
Clara, Robert, Johannes: Darlings of the Muses, Canada's NAC Orchestra, Gabriela Montero, Alexander Shelley
This is the first of four albums from Canada's NAC Orchestra and Alexander Shelley exploring the "closely intertwined personal and artistic connections [among] three musical giants: Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms." Here, we get impassioned readings of Brahms' Symphony No. 1 and Robert's "Spring" Symphony, plus Clara's neglected Piano Concerto, Op. 7, in what is surely the best performance of this work on record. A bonus: pianist Gabriela Montero improvises on Clara's themes for 19 glorious minutes.
Schumann: Waldszenen, Nachtstücke & Humoreske, Zoltán Féjervári
And finally, even though he's Hungarian, pianist Zoltán Féjervári has had strong Canadian connections since winning first prize at the 2017 Montreal International Music Competition. This all-Schumann album, recorded in Saint-Irénée, Que., is a result of that win and reminds us why the jury was so taken with Féjervári. He's got a complete technical arsenal to deploy in service of the music's ever-shifting moods: a crisp touch for the hunter in Waldszenen, then seamless legato for "Einsame Blumen." Chords are perfectly voiced in the four Nachtstücke, and the Humoreske, while comprising contrasting episodes, is played with a cogent arc from beginning to end.