Best classical albums of 2017, more or less

Someone on Twitter asked me for a list, so here it is. This list is an hour’s work on Tuesday night, so I make no claims to completeness or scientific rigour. This is just some music I liked in 2017. Roughly in ascending order of how much fun I had listening to it. I tried to come up with 10, but stopped at 7:

7. Marc-André Hamelin, Morton Feldman: For Bunita Marcus (Hyperion)

The great Canadian pianist plays a mid-career masterwork from one of the most distinctive 20th-century American composers. Not for everyone! Disjointed sprays of notes, rarely faster than half-note speed. All subtly disturbing without being ostentatiously dissonant. Feldman was always more minimalist than the composers who got called Minimalists. Of course it’s funny that Hamelin, who’s revered for his finger technique, plays music in which not a lot happens. But of course that’s not why he’s playing it. Like a lot of what he’s playing these days, the choice of material forces a re-examination of both player and composition.

6. Danish String Quartet, Last Leaf (ECM)

This quartet has been A Thing in chamber-music circles for a few years now, because they play simple pretty tunes in a lovely manner and they are, incidentally, handsome young fellows. They’ve come to the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival twice without me noticing. Anyway, the new album is gorgeous, delicate Nordic folk melodies played just this side of too sweet. Just because music is easy to like doesn’t mean there’s anything to be gained by being suspicious of it.

5. Canadian National Brass Project, Canadian National Brass Project (Independent)

A choir of high and low brass players from most of the leading Canadian orchestras, plus a few from here who play in U.S. orchestras. It’s gorgeous, majestic, an audiophile showcase and, I hope, the object of close attention from every serious brass student in the country. This is how trumpets, horns, trombones and tubas are supposed to sound, kids.

4. James Ehnes, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Andrew Manze, Beethoven: Violin Concerto; Romances; Schubert: Rondo (Onyx)

Increasingly, I’m thinking the violinist from Brandon, Manitoba isn’t just really good, or a fully deserving Canadian with an international career; I think he’s one of the leading violinists of our day, with a big, polished sound and impeccable delivery of long melodic lines. (He’s also good at talking about music. Orchestras should coax him into a leadership role as a spokesman for this music, because he’s born to explain its significance and its secrets to audiences.) I’ve listened to a lot of Beethoven violin concerto recordings. (Pinchas Zukerman used to live here. Comparing his Beethoven recording to everyone else’s was a phase I went through.) This is near the top.

3. Thomas Demenga, Bach: Suiten für Violoncello (ECM)

Swiss cellist plays the Bach cello suites in manner-of-fact fashion, stripped of ornament, with a mournful, focussed tone. Look, every year you get new recordings of the Bach Goldberg variations, the sonatas and partitas for solo violin, and the cello suites, and almost all of it is well-meaning and thoughtful, and I normally wouldn’t bother you with any of it. This recording is haunting, though, in ways I can’t entirely explain. I’ve probably listened to this album more than the others on the list, indeed more than most of them put together.

2. The Staves + yMusic, The Way is Read (Nonesuch)

The Staves are a British folk-singing trio. yMusic is a New York City contemporary chamber ensemble. Two great tastes that taste great together! On a program of folk standards and new compositions, the vocals-plus-strings arrangements range from reasonably conventional, and lovely, to bracing and strange. As a label, Nonesuch used to exist, 30 years ago, entirely in this world, finding new and unique sounds that broad audiences of open-minded listeners could relate to. These days it’s a little safer, but it’s good to see the label still supporting bizarre and heartening experiments like this.

1. Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra; Alexander Shelley, Encount3rs (Analekta)

It’s been a long time since the NAC Orchestra released an album of new compositions. This year it released two, and they’re both really strong. Encount3rs received less attention than Life Reflected; written for dance companies from three Canadian cities, its compositions are less didactic in topic and treatment, more abstract. Maybe a little easier to like because less eager to be admired. All three compositions here are substantial. Andrew Staniland’s Phi, Calaestis is insistent post-minimalism. Nicole Lizée’s Keep Driving, I’m Dreaming is a mad soundtrack to an imaginary noir thriller, further evidence that Lizée is one of the country’s most distinctive composers. Kevin Lau’s Dark Angels is smartly orchestrated, a little more conventional. The pieces go together in satisfying ways. It’s good to see an orchestra with a national mandate embracing new music with such — what’s the word? — joy.