Our 22 favourite Canadian classical albums of 2022

Like all years, 2022 has had its ups and downs. The COVID-19 pandemic continued to disrupt concert activity, although to a lesser degree than during the previous two years. On the positive side of the ledger, there was a steady stream of new music from Canada’s classical musicians, keeping us both busy and entertained all year long.

While Quebec, home to Canada’s two biggest classical music labels, continues to punch above its weight, it’s encouraging to see Leaf Music, a relatively new label based in Halifax, building steam, and Redshift Records on the West Coast remaining steadfast in its mission to bring the music of living composers to a wide public.

Scroll down to discover the Canadian classical albums that seized the attention of hosts and producers here at CBC Music in 2022. Click on the album titles for further information.

These were our favourites of the year. What were yours? Let us know in the comments section, below.

It’s hard to beat the sound of a top-notch brass quintet, and the musicians of Buzz Brass have been refining theirs for more than two decades. They positively shine on this collection of arrangements of chestnuts (Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance, Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre) and light classics (a rag by Lew Pollack and a couple of Piazzolla numbers.) Pianist Philip Chiu is a suave partner for Gershwin’s Cuban Overture and organist Jonathan Oldengarm fleshes out their arrangement of Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice with the requisite mystique. After a crisp trumpet intro, their swinging take on a movement from Claude Bolling’s Toot Suite is a fitting tribute to the late jazz legend.

Souvenirs de qui? Well, Auguste Descarries, now largely forgotten, was a prominent pianist from Montreal in the first half of the 20th century. He was part of Isabelle David’s family lore (her grandmother took lessons with Descarries back in the day), so she decided to spend the four years of her doctorate at l’Université de Montréal researching and recording Descarries’ piano music — and we are richer for it. His music has a pleasing, salonesque quality, and indeed David mentions in her album notes that Descarries and his wife were famed hosts to prominent artists at their Outremont home. David’s fluid phrasing, deep familiarity with the music and, when required, power at the keyboard serve his pieces well.

20. Transfiguration, Valérie Milot, Stéphane Tétreault

Harpist Valérie Milot and cellist Stéphane Tétreault form a fierce duo: formidable solo artists whose creative cells seem to split and multiply when they team up, as is the case on this collection of new works by Canadian composers. The quasi-title track is Marjan Mozetich’s Transfigured Sentiment, a riveting meditation on the plight of Cio-Cio San, the heroine of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. François Vallières’ Double-Monologue uses melting textures for its character study of two willful personalities. Caroline Lizotte, herself a harpist, evokes the Scottish Highlands in her suite Close for Couloir, while Alexandre Grogg’s Three Variations on “La Folia” begin the album in an informal, jazzy vein. Milot and Tétreault bring it all to life with refreshing audacity.

19. Lumena, Topaz Duo

Here’s another excellent duo with harp, this time from Toronto. Harpist Angela Schwarzkopf and flutist Kaili Maimets have been playing together since 2008, but Lumena is their long-awaited debut album. When they gave Kevin Lau carte blanche to write a piece for this project, he responded with Little Feng Huang, a four-movement suite that addresses the common, but rarely discussed, issue of infertility and pregnancy loss. The duo’s playing shows solidarity and, especially when the suite resolves on a C major chord, genuine feeling. On the album’s title track, a meditative composition by Maimets’s brother, Riho Esko Maimets, they conjure the beauty of northern landscapes, and they play complex sonatas by Lowell Liebermann and Marjan Mozetich with beautiful sonorities and apparent ease.

Over the years, Hélène Mercier and Louis Lortie have forged a strong partnership, releasing albums devoted to the duets and two-piano music of Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Mozart and Schubert — and now, what a joy it is to hear them add Debussy to the list. They play not only music that Debussy originally wrote for piano duet (Petite SuiteSix Épigraphes antiquesMarche écossaise sur un thème populaire), but also arrangements of some of his most familiar works, foremost among them being André Caplet’s two-piano version of La Mer and Léon Roques’ two-piano take on Arabesque No. 1. Playing two Bösendorfer grands, the duo’s sensual, idiomatic performances were beautifully captured by the recording team in the concert hall at Snape Maltings in Suffolk, England.

Another piano duo that grabbed our attention in 2022 was that of Amélie Fortin and Marie-Christine Poirier, with this whimsical foray into all things nocturnal. The album opens with a dreamy reimagining of Brahms’s Lullaby, arranged as a chorale prelude, evoking a starry sky. There are lavish cascades of notes in Maggie Ayotte’s Entre la veille et la someil while “Nachtmusik,” an excerpt from Alfonso Peduto’s Clockwork, introduces playfulness to the dreamscape with its impish leaping octaves. The album’s centrepiece is Fazil Say’s Night, a turbulent tableau with extended piano techniques that give the pianists a chance to show their stuff. Stick around for the final track, Shaun Choo’s Fiestravaganza, a tongue-in-cheek rag with the energy of a tarantella that’s sure to jolt you out of your reverie.

16. Preludes, Julia MacLaine

We never tire of old-meets-new concept albums, especially when they unite so many fabulous creatives. For hers, Julia MacLaine stepped out from the National Arts Centre Orchestra, where she’s been associate principal cellist since 2014, to pair each of the preludes from J.S. Bach’s six suites for unaccompanied cello with a newly composed “response.” The six composers chosen for the project were Airat Ichmouratov, Gabriel Dharmoo, Carmen Braden, Nicole Lizée, Cris Derksen and Roy Johnstone, and MacLaine’s rich tone and impassioned playing serve them as well as they do JSB. Highlights include Dharmoo’s transparent “Sarasarahat,” which makes good use of harmonics, and Derksen’s slyly titled “Land Bach,” an eloquent counterpoint to the fifth prelude. “The cumulative effect of the 12 tracks is riveting,” declared a review in Strings magazine, and we couldn’t agree more.

While we’re excited about the Mozart sonata cycle that pianist Angela Hewitt launched on Nov. 4 with the first of three double albums, we’re here to hype the final instalment in her Beethoven sonata cycle, released in February. She’s one of only a few women ever to have recorded all 32, and she saved the biggest for last: the expansive Op. 106 (“Hammerklavier”) and the final sonata, Op. 111. In her insightful album notes, she refers to the “incredible stamina and power” required to play the former and describes the latter sonata as “one of the most sublime compositions a pianist can play.” With palpable reverence for the music, she’s judicious with the sustain pedal and focuses on the through line to bring uncommon clarity to these iconic, valedictory works.

This album underlined the 75th anniversary of the birth of Russian Canadian composer Nikolai Korndorf, whose life was tragically truncated in 2001 at the age of 54. For the decade he spent in Canada, Vancouver was his base, so it’s fitting that this tribute originated there, with some of the city’s best musicians assembling for the world premiere recording of the title track, a scintillating orchestral work inspired by the famed folk artist. “Discovering the art of Maud Lewis was the most important cultural experience for me since moving to Canada,” Korndorf told CBC in 1998. The album also includes an expressive performance by Ariel Barnes and Anna Levy of Korndorf’s Triptych for cello and piano, plus his mesmerizing Lullaby for two pianos, played by Levy and Jane Hayes. Another piano duo completes the album: Jocelyn Morlock’s Half-Light, Somnolent Rains, written in 2006 to mark the fifth anniversary of Korndorf’s death.

This year’s breakthrough group is the Andara Quartet, comprising violinists Marie-Claire Vaillancourt and Jeanne Côté, violist Vincent Delorme and cellist Dominique Beauséjour-Ostiguy, who met during their student days at the Montreal Conservatory. They’re currently the junior ensemble in residence at the University of Montreal, and their rich sound and refined playing show they’re poised for big things. This debut full-length album is a collaboration with producer/composer James K. Wright, whose lush, tuneful String Quartet No. 1, titled “Ellen at Scattergood,” is one of the year’s best discoveries. They make a convincing case for Benjamin Britten’s String Quartet No. 1, leaning into its suspense and sudden outbursts, and in Barber’s Adagio, the individual musicians’ solo lines positively shimmer. Kelly-Marie Murphy’s Dark Energy is a blast from BISQC past, and they do its title justice.

12. Maestrino Mozart, Marie-Ève Munger, Les Boréades, Philippe Bourque

At an age when most of us were still learning to tie our shoes and chew with our mouths shut, Mozart was composing operas. Good ones, in fact, as soprano Marie-Ève Munger shows on this album, singing arias and recitatives from operas and stage works Mozart composed between the ages of 10 and 16 — and they aren’t the “charming, juvenile” exercises of lore. Album opener “Biancheggia in mar lo scoglio,” from Il sogno di Scipione, is a bravura aria that holds up to Konstanze’s best moments in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, and Munger meets its challenges without batting an eye. Les Boréades and Philippe Bourque share in the drama that unfolds in selections from La finta semplice, Mitridate, rè di Ponto, Lucio Scilla and more. A bonus: Munger’s notes on the repertoire are fun and enlightening.

11. Viola Borealis, Marina Thibeault, Orchestre de l’Agora, Nicolas Ellis

This album’s title alludes not only to the dazzling natural phenomenon common to northern countries, but also the music of three northern composers, whom violist Marina Thibeault connects through time and space: Georg Philipp Telemann’s Viola Concerto (the first concerto written for the instrument), Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks’s Viola Concerto (premiered in 2016), and two excerpts from Reckoning, a suite for solo viola by Anishinaabe composer Melody McKiver. The myriad colours Thibeault gets from their viola serve McKiver’s piece well. For the concertos, they team up with rising conductor Nicolas Ellis, who leads his own group, l’Orchestre de l’Agora. The whole project brims with next-gen energy and the promise of a bright future.

Violinist Angèle Dubeau and her chamber orchestra, La Pietà, released two albums in 2022: first Elle, a collection of music by women composers, and more recently, the latest instalment in their Portrait series, this time devoted to Alex Baranowski, a rising English composer having great success in TV and film. His music gets the royal treatment on this album, with accomplished performances and opulent audio production. There are highlights from Baranowski’s scores for the films Nureyev and The Windermere Children, and for the ballet Nineteen Eighty-Four. The opening track, Wiosna (Spring), was inspired by a poem written by Baranowski’s grandfather in a forced labour camp in Siberia in 1941. It was commissioned by Dubeau, and Baranowski describes it as one of the most personal pieces he’s ever written.

9. Nagamo, musica intima, Andrew Balfour

“Nagamo is a reimagining of history,” explains Cree composer Andrew Balfour in his notes for this thought-provoking new album. Balfour was taken from his family as a baby during the Sixties Scoop, and says trying to identify his Indigenous blood, culture and language has been a lifelong journey. On Nagamo (“Sings” in Cree), he joins forces with Vancouver choir musica intima to shine a new light on the Renaissance polyphony Balfour learned growing up in the Anglican Church. “By taking choral music of the Elizabethan masters and other later choral music, I have reshaped the thoughts behind the texts, by changing the Latin to Ojibway or Cree perspectives,” he explains. “These are not direct translations of the sacred texts, rather a more Indigenous perspective of spirituality, but keeping the beauty of the polyphony intact.”

8. Lachrymae, Sheila Jaffé, Huw Watkins

This album draws its title from Benjamin Britten’s variations for viola and piano on themes from a John Dowland song, but it’s also a tribute to the late pianist Peter Longworth, Sheila Jaffé’s husband, who died in 2018 at the age of 53. Jaffé and pianist Huw Watkins’s performance packs an emotional punch, not only in the haunting sonorities of Britten’s Lachrymae, but also in the beloved sonatas for violin and piano by César Franck and Edward Elgar. Jaffé’s grief expresses itself not through any sort of morosity, but rather a heightened expression that both lifts the heavenly moments and intensifies the passionate ones — life, in all its facets, poured into musical performance. In Watkins, she has an attentive collaborator who plays with tremendous nuance.

It’s safe to say there’s never been another pianist to release albums devoted to the music of both Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and William Bolcom during the same calendar year. But then, it’s hard to think of another pianist with Marc-André Hamelin’s dogged curiosity. Of his two 2022 albums, we give the edge to his double album of keyboard works by C.P.E. Bach, whose liminal music fuses the lavish ornamentation of the high baroque with the emotive style of the burgeoning classical era. Hamelin relishes the music’s oddball spurts and breakneck fioritura and commits to a truly pianistic performance with his firm, ringing tone, beautifully recorded by Hyperion Records.

Lovers of art song, rejoice! Here’s a major project, years in the making, that compiles the complete songs for voice(s) and piano by Jules Massenet, including the first recording of many of them. The fil conducteur is the tireless Olivier Godin, who performs all 333 songs on an 1854 Érard piano with a who’s who of French Canadian vocalists: Karina Gauvin, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Michèle Losier, Frédéric Antoun, Julie Boulianne, Jean-François Lapointe and Marc Boucher, to name a few. The melodic inventiveness and delightful characterization that distinguished Massenet in the realm of opera are evident here in miniature form, providing hours — more than 15, to be precise — of listening pleasure.

From the Juno Award-winning duo that concluded its Beethoven violin sonata cycle in 2021 came a new set — this time contained on a single album — exploring Robert Schumann’s largely neglected contribution to this repertoire. Schumann doesn’t allow much light into these autumnal, minor-key compositions, but when he does, Wan and Richard-Hamelin take full advantage with lustrous sound and relaxed phrasing. They bring urgency to the sonatas’ outer movements, a sepia tone to the fragile music box of the D minor sonata’s third movement, and magically suspend time in the third sonata’s impossibly beautiful intermezzo. Where will Wan and Richard-Hamelin turn their attention next?

Four things about this remarkable album: First, the wonderfully named Space Time Continuo is an ensemble of four baroque cellists, a lutenist and an organist (for this project, at least) — an admittedly unusual combination, but trust us, it sounds amazing. Second, you do not need to understand what a Magnificat fugue is to wring every drop of pleasure from this music. Third, if all you know about Pachelbel is his Canon in D, you’re in luck: it’s track 17 — and there are 22 other pieces in a similar vein to discover. Fourth, forget whatever preconceived notions you may have about baroque chamber music being genteel or staid: Space Time Continuo performs with the abandon of folk musicians sitting around your living room, and the fun is infectious.

Recorded live in Würzburg, Germany, in 2018, and released by Deutsche Grammophon earlier this year, this recital finds pianist Jan Lisiecki continuing his exploration of nighttime and its many facets. He traces an arc, from Mozart’s enchanting variations on “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” to the sinister foreboding of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, by way of Schumann’s Nachtstücke. The challenging chordal passages in the Schumann pieces are exquisitely voiced and gracefully tapered. Despite being note-perfect, Lisiecki’s Mozart variations come across as a fun improvisation session. In Ravel, his risks pay off, with an unusually slow (and extra eerie) “Le gibet” and a breakneck “Scarbo” of superhuman calibre. Also, it’s hard to think of another live recording with better audio production.

2. Fables, Philip Chiu

On this gorgeous album, pianist Philip Chiu champions both the time-honoured (transcriptions of Maurice Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major and Mother Goose) and the timely (Mnidoonskaa: an Abundance of Insects, a five-movement suite he commissioned from Barbara Assiginaak). He plays with remarkable restraint, drawing you into sinuous melodies with perfectly balanced voicing and a crystalline tone rather than showy displays  — although those do come here and there. In Chiu’s Ravel, beauty abounds as he plays his own convincing revisions of transcriptions by Lucien Garban and Jacques Charlot; in the recent work by Assiginaak, a jaw-dropping evocation of the natural world, he introduces us to an important addition to the solo piano repertoire that we expect to hear regularly in the years to come..

During the planning stages for their latest album, the musicians of collectif9 asked themselves, “Could we, as nine string players, perform Claude Debussy’s La Mer and do it justice?” The answer, we’re happy to report, is a resounding yes. Their chamber version of Debussy’s orchestral tableau invites a more detailed experience of the work’s textures and harmonies — a remarkable accomplishment. Arrangements of four other Debussy miniatures open the album, including an enchanting take on Arabesque No. 1 adorned with whale song. The cetacean theme continues in a hair-raising new work, Contact, by Luna Pearl Woolf, which she describes as “a sonic view into the underwater world of beluga whales in the St. Lawrence Estuary.” Reader: take the plunge into the waves and shadows of this outstanding album.