Our 20 favourite Canadian classical albums of 2019

Outstanding records from Jan Lisiecki, Angela Hewitt, Gerald Finley, Tafelmusik and others.

Outstanding records from Jan Lisiecki, Angela Hewitt, Gerald Finley, Tafelmusik and others

Charles Richard-Hamelin's most recent album, Chopin: Ballades & Impromptus, was released on Sept. 20, 2019, via Analekta Records. (Elisabeth Delage)

Now that December is upon us, it's time not only to dust off our recordings of Handel's Messiah and Bach's Christmas Oratorio, but also to reflect on the year that was.

In the past, we've rounded up our favourite Canadian classical albums of the year in a top 10 list. But 2019 yielded such a bumper crop — Canada's classical pianists were especially prolific this year — that we required a longer list (and more superlatives) to say what needed to be said. We're not complaining!

Here are the 20 Canadian classical albums that stood out this year. Click on the album titles for more information.

20. Adam Cicchillitti, Steve Cowan, Focus (Analekta)

If you were among the lucky ones who caught guitarists Cicchillitti and Cowan on their November 2018 Debut Atlantic tour, then you already know what we discovered upon hitting play on this wonderful album of new and recent works. The two-movement piece by Harry Stafylakis that gives the album its title was commissioned by the duo and shows off impeccable ensemble work. Patrick Roux's Ombres et lumières is a binary form whose neo-Baroque A section frames an Allergo deciso that's at once lyrical and thrilling in Cicchillitti and Cowan's hands. The centrepiece is José Evangelista's five-movement Retazos, a wistful, impressionistic study in greys.

19. Cameron Crozman, Philip Chiu, Cavatine (ATMA Classique)

"I never saw myself making a debut album that was anything but French music," Cameron Crozman told CBC Music when this collection of works by Debussy, Koechlin, Messiaen, Poulenc and Françaix was released in January. Crozman lived and studied in Paris from 2012 to 2018, an immersion that evidently honed his affection for these mid 20th-century compositions. Pianist Chiu proves the ideal partner for sonatas by Debussy and Poulenc in which mood can change on a dime. Koechlin's delightful Chansons bretonnes are a pleasant discovery, while an excerpt from Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps casts a spell with Crozman's limpid tone.

18. Philippe Sly, Le Chimera Project, Schubert: Winterreise (Analekta)

Putting a creative twist on a classic, bass-baritone Sly and his Chimera Project present a klezmer/Roma reading of Franz Schubert's Die Winterreise, and it's a context that perfectly suits Sly's intimate, conversational style of delivery. But don't be fooled, this isn't Schubert "lite." In fact, some of the cycle's 24 songs take on a new dimension of foreboding in this arrangement: Sly's whistle is the will-o'-the-wisp that makes the narrator lose his way in "Irrlicht;" a pizzicato violin depicts the narrator's waning energy in "Rast," while in "Mut" the trombone attempts to boost his morale. Most impressive of all is how Sly and the musicians of Chimera Project react to each other's phrasing, making the whole endeavour almost more akin to jazz than art song.

17. Marina Thibeault, Marie-Eve Scarfone, Elles (ATMA Classique)

Maybe one day there'll be nothing unusual about an album of music by women composers, but until then we'll continue greeting records such as violist Thibeault and pianist Scarfone's Elles with extra enthusiasm. Their survey begins with a leisurely reading of Clara Schumann's Three Romances, showing off Thibeault's mellow tone, and continues with Nadia Boulanger's Three Pieces and Rebecca Clarke's Viola Sonata, whose impressionism is enhanced by Scarfone's subtle piano shadings. A bonus: the music by Lillian Fuchs and Anna Pidgorna for solo viola that rounds out the album is a mini masterclass, so aspiring violists, listen up!

16. Rolston String Quartet, Miguel da Silva, Gary Hoffman, Souvenirs: Music of Tchaikovsky (Fuga Libera)

We expected a fine debut album from the Rolston String Quartet, winners of the 2016 Banff International String Quartet Competition, and we got it with this gorgeous Tchaikovsky survey. Balance and blend are the order of the day when they play the familiar String Quartet No. 1 — with such impeccable tuning it brings tears of gratitude to our eyes. Violist da Silva and cellist Hoffman join the Rolstons for Souvenir de Florence, adding to the Adagio's Mozartean ache and the outrageously exciting finale. Selections from Tchaikovsky's Children's Album, originally for solo piano, provide a fun interlude.

15. Ildar Abdrazakov, Orchestre Métropolitain, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Verdi (Deutsche Grammophon)

When this album appeared in August, we couldn't help thinking about the late Joseph Rouleau who was involved in establishing l'Orchestre Métropolitain back in the early 1980s and who sang some of the repertoire so ably rendered by bass-baritone Abdrazakov on this Verdi recital. The Russian opera star has the rich tone and legato necessary to phrase Verdi's long lines (Procida's "O tu, Palermo" from I Vespri Siciliani left us gasping for air), and he brings hair-raising intensity to the recitatives. L'Orchestre Métropolitain is remarkably responsive to Nézet-Séguin's nuanced direction, transforming the score from mere accompaniment to full-on participant in the drama.

Also recommended: l'Orchestre Métropolitain's Sibelius 1, an EP released last March to launch ATMA Classique's complete Sibelius symphony cycle with Nézet-Séguin.

14. Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, Andrew Davis, Berlioz (Chandos)

After wowing us over the past decade with recordings of Vaughan-Williams, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninoff, Holst and Shostakovich, the TSO and its interim artistic director, Davis, turn to French repertoire for their latest release and it's a good fit. Davis brings theatrical flair to Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, drawing out flamboyance from the brass and woodwinds and showing off the legato playing of the TSO strings. And what a treat to hear Berlioz's unjustly neglected Fantaisie dramatique sur la Tempête de Shakespeare, with its delightful addition of piano and chorus to the orchestral texture. Under Davis' direction, it sounds celestial and at times has all the martial verve of "La Marseillaise."

13. Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, Elisa Citterio, Vivaldi con amore (Tafelmusik)

We had been looking forward to a Tafelmusik release ever since Citterio took over its music directorship in 2017, and it was worth the wait. A good idea to focus on Vivaldi, which allows various members of the orchestra (including Citterio herself) some time in the soloist's spotlight. Highlights include Dominic Teresi's funky, buzzy bassoon sound in RV 481, the plaintive duo oboes of John Abberger and Marco Cera in RV 534, and Citterio's clear tone riding atop the band, especially in RV 271. Continuo playing is assured and propulsive, eliciting a collective sense of spontaneity and fun that really enhances the larger group numbers, as this excerpt illustrates:

12. Duo Kalysta with Marina Thibeault, Alexander Read and Carmen Bruno, Origins (Leaf Music)

Leaf Music is a relatively new label on Canada's classical scene, and its growing catalogue contains some real gems, foremost among them being this remarkable debut from Duo Kalysta. Comprising flutist Lara Deutsch and harpist Emily Belvedere, the duo fits a lot into the album's 46 minutes. For flute and harp, there's Debussy's famous Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (played flawlessly) and Jocelyn Morlock's engrossing Vespertine. The core of the album is R. Murray Schafer's Trio for Flute, Viola and Harp (Thibeault joins them for that) and it's a joy to hear it played with such polish. The chamber arrangement of André Jolivet's Chant de Linos concludes the album with the requisite mad skills. Meet them here:

11. Pentaèdre Wind Quintet, Mozart: Quintets Dedicated to Haydn (ATMA Classique)

Among Mozart's best chamber works are the string quartets he dedicated to Haydn, and we aren't alone in this assessment: the members of Montreal's Pentaèdre Wind Quintet felt so strongly about them, they recorded arrangements of all six for this magnificent three-CD set. Sit back and let the beautifully recorded sound of this ensemble wash over you as the musicians ably manoeuvre between the alternating tension and release of Mozart's phrases. You'd never guess these pieces were originally written for strings, so idiomatic and creative are these arrangements (three by U.K. wind specialist Geoffrey Emerson, the other three by members of Pentaèdre), revealing yet again how universal Mozart's music is.

10. Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, Kent Nagano, The John Adams Album (Decca)

Released without much hype, this album nevertheless grabbed our attention and held it for every one of its 67 scintillating minutes. Nagano, who's been championing Adams' orchestral works for nearly four decades, says, "Each time one returns to these scores and restudies them, one has the opportunity to find something more — to discover new dimensions one has not remarked upon before, other reflections of innovation and genius." He and the OSM deliver on that, uncovering the orchestral brilliance of three works: Common Tones in Simple Time, Harmonielehre and Short Ride in a Fast Machine. There's nothing else to say except listen and be amazed.

9. Philip Chiu, John Burge: 24 Preludes for Solo Piano (Centrediscs)

Well-known as a collaborative pianist, Chiu makes his solo album debut in emphatic form with this reading of Burge's 24 Preludes. Composed from 2011 to 2015 and fashioned after Chopin's example, each of Burge's preludes has its own distinct character which Chiu unveils, chameleon-like, with astonishing interpretive and technical proficiency. The set opens with the lovely, neo-impressionistic Prelude No. 1 in C major and branches out to include myriad styles and some artful extra-pianistic effects. (Prelude No. 17, "The Aeolian Harp," asks the pianist to strum the strings, for instance.) There's profound lyricism (No. 21), dreamy minimalism (No. 8) as well as mind-blowing virtuosity — Chiu told CBC Music that Prelude No. 13 was "hair-tearingly hard to execute" — and he makes it all seem effortless.

8. Jan Lisiecki, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Mendelssohn (Deutsche Grammophon)

For his recording projects, Lisiecki has tended to eschew the warhorses of classical music and instead champion music that he feels deserves to be better known, such as Mendelssohn's two piano concertos. "They strike a balance between classical and Romantic — they have emotion, virtuosity, beauty, drama, but require a delicate touch and incredible precision," he explained to CBC Music. Lisiecki delivers on all counts and you simply won't find a better recording of them than this one with the conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. A bonus: the album contains 21 minutes of solo piano music (Variations sérieuses, Rondo capriccioso and Venetian Gondola Song), which he infuses with an unlikely mixture of devilish bravado and devotional reverence. It works!

7. Janina Fialkowska, Les sons et les parfums... (ATMA Classique)

In the liner notes, pianist Fialkowska admits her latest album is "pure nostalgia," a trip in time back to 1960s Paris where she studied music by Debussy, Chabrier, Ravel, Fauré and Tailleferre, "whose music paints audible pictures of glorious boulevards then still unsullied by global franchises." It's these pieces that Fialkowska has dusted off and performs here so lovingly, putting her formidable technique and soulful disposition to use. To single out her interpretation of certain pieces — Fauré's Nocturne No. 4 is a revelation, Debussy's Reflets dans l'eau is an enchanting kaleidoscope — is to miss the point: Fialkowska has gifted us with an album in the true sense, with each piece chosen for something unique it brings to a satisfying whole.

6. Charles Richard-Hamelin, Chopin: Ballades & Impromptus (Analekta)

For a young pianist (he turned 30 in July), Richard-Hamelin already has deep experience with Chopin's Ballades and Impromptus, having played them the world over since winning the silver medal and Krystian Zimerman Prize at the 2015 International Chopin Piano Competition. "It's really a blessing," he explained to CBC Music when this album appeared. "This way I get to continue my lifelong exploration of his music, which still fascinates me so much." His engagement — intellectual and emotional — with these pieces is palpable, and while he covers a huge dynamic range, his interpretation is never exaggerated or flamboyant. Some of the credit goes to producer/recording engineer Carl Talbot, who found the perfect balance between proximity and space to allow Richard-Hamelin's pristine, bell-like tone to ring out.

5. Gerald Finley and Julius Drake, Schubert: Schwanengesang; Brahms: Vier ernste Gesänge (Hyperion Records)

From the partnership that has given us so many excellent records over the years comes this new collection pairing Schubert's final songs (literally his swan song) with Brahms' first ones. They were recorded in October 2018, an oasis of calm between Finley's performances of Scarpia in Puccini's Tosca and Iago in Verdi's Otello. While art song might seem worlds away from those raging opera villains, in fact Schubert's songs often juxtapose emotional extremes — hope and despair, joy and sorrow — albeit much more quietly. And quietly is the operative word here, as Finley and Drake draw the listener into a very intimate sound world indeed. Whether they're setting a gloomy scene ("Die Stadt") or depicting love's first thrill ("Frülingssehnsucht"), Finley sings with a beautiful, unforced tone while Drake's infallible sense of timing keeps you on the edge of your seat.

4. Paul Merkelo, Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra, Marios Papadopoulos, The Enlightened Trumpet (Sony Classical)

It's been a while since we've been this excited about trumpet concertos and Merkelo, principal trumpet of the OSM since 1995, is the reason. As his album's title suggests, he and the Oxford Phil are playing the most famous concertos from the 18th century — those by Haydn, Leopold Mozart, Telemann and, of course, Hummel. "I have studied these famous trumpet concertos since I started playing at age 10," he told CBC Music. "I was inspired by the recordings of Wynton Marsalis, Timofei Dokshizer and Maurice André." We're pleased to report that Merkelo's album takes its rightful place alongside theirs, with his dazzling technique and positively gleaming tone, nicely supported by an attentive conductor. Trumpet aficionados, take note: Merkelo plays the Hummel concerto on a custom-made E major trumpet and opts for Dokshizer's cadenza in the third movement — and it's a thrilling ride.

3. Angela Hewitt, Bach: The Six Partitas (Hyperion Records)

When Hewitt's first recording of J.S. Bach's Six Partitas appeared in 1997, critics ran out of superlatives. (Gramophone said it "effortlessly eclipsed all competition.") Twenty-two years later, you might wonder why she'd feel compelled to re-record them. "I think that now, after so many years of studying Bach and of course having done the complete works (something which I hadn't done when I first recorded the Partitas), I have a much greater understanding of his musical language and what exactly it expresses," she explained to CBC Music recently. That wisdom finds expression in marginally slower tempos and more nuanced phrasing, enabled by Hewitt's beloved Fazioli piano, which has been beautifully recorded at the Kulturzentrum at the Grand Hotel in Dobbiaco, Italy.

We suggest following Hewitt's advice: "Find yourself two hours and 45 minutes during which you can listen to all six Partitas at once — just put them on, lie on the sofa or the floor, and listen through without interruptions. Bach says so much in these pieces, and the cumulative effect is really something that will leave you in awe."

2. Charles-Richard Hamelin, Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, Kent Nagano, Chopin: Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 (Analekta)

The OSM's catalogue now contains two outstanding recordings of Chopin's piano concertos, with this recent one by Richard-Hamelin and Nagano taking its rightful place alongside Martha Argerich and Charles Dutoit's much-lauded rendition from 1999. In fact, those who like their Chopin performed with humility, pathos and reverence for the score will likely favour Richard-Hamelin's take. After the E minor concerto's long introduction, Richard-Hamelin bursts in with perfectly voiced chords before putting that bell-like tone (see No. 6, above) to use on the impossibly beautiful second theme. The Larghetto of the F minor concerto seems to suspend time, with pianist and orchestra locked in one of those amorous "No, you hang up first" dialogues. The rondos of both concertos sparkle with precise articulation and orchestral propulsion. Plus, the recording captures all the excitement of a live recording with next to no extraneous noise to distract you from this exquisite musical utterance.

1. Jan Lisiecki, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Beethoven: Complete Piano Concertos (Deutsche Grammophon)

Our favourite album of 2019 almost never happened. Murray Perahia had been announced as the soloist for a fall 2018 European tour playing Beethoven's five piano concertos with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, but when he was indisposed, Lisiecki filled in. It was decided to stick with plans to record the concerts at Berlin's Konzerthaus and the result was so outstanding that it was quickly chosen by Lisiecki's label, Deutsche Grammophon, to launch its Beethoven 2020 rollout. As with his all-Mendelssohn album (see No. 8, above) there is no conductor for these performances. "The recording is entirely live, we could only record the rehearsal and the concert; no touch-up sessions were available," Lisiecki explained to CBC Music. "The final result, I hope, is a reflection of a very successful and dynamic live cycle of these concertos."

The final result, in fact, is simply stunning and affords us the opportunity to hear these familiar pieces with fresh ears — a remarkable accomplishment. Standout moments include the sturm und drang of the coda of the third concerto's first movement, the tenderness expressed during the slow movement of the first concerto, the unbridled joy of the fourth concerto's rondo and the absolutely electric opening of the fifth. The Beethoven 2020 party has started with a bang.