The Best Classical Album category may have a relatively low profile at next week's Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards but it's an important one, highlighting the distinction, perseverance and cultural faith of the musicians, composers and record labels associated with it.

This year's three finalists represent a clean sweep for Wayne Laird's Atoll Records. For almost two decades, Laird has built up an impressive catalogue, ranging from the music of Gillian Whitehead and From Scratch to historic recordings of the New Zealand 28 Maori Battalion and pianist Richard Farrell.

First up for this year's honours is Dalecarlia Clarinet Quintet's Fjarran, with Kiwi clarinettist Anna McGregor and four Swedish colleagues giving us quintets by Ross Harris and Anthony Ritchie. Reviewing this exquisitely tempered chamber music back in February, a five-star rating was inevitable; revisiting it during the last few months makes me wish that six or seven were at my disposal.

Many will find it difficult to resist the lush opulence of Kenneth Young's music, as caught on Shadows and Light played by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under its composer.


Young is most comfortable with a fairly conservative language, frankly admitting to the influence of composers from Henri Dutilleux to Gerald Finzi. His breathtakingly skilful orchestrations are sumptuously caught by producer Laird in Wellington's Michael Fowler Centre. If the disc's major offering, a 2004 Symphony, suffers from the fragmentation of its own brilliance, a more convincing voice emerges in the shorter pieces, such as Young's 2007 Remembering, with an eloquent soloist in violinist Vesa-Matti Leppanen.

Finally, Zephyr's Music for Winds features musicians from the ranks of the NZSO and more than lives up to its expected excellence. Gareth Farr's scurrying Mad Little Machine is like the fizz of cool mineral water before a tasty meal and, within five minutes, you'll be well satisfied by the smooth contours and unruffled fluency of Ken Wilson's 1965 Wind Quintet.

The strength of this CD lies in the opportunity offered to hear woodwind classics by Douglas Lilburn and Christopher Blake. Blake, best known these days as a composer who usually writes on a weightier symphonic scale, achieves an evocative blend of soundscape, landscape and history in the five short pieces of his 1988 Sounds.

The surprise for me - and a welcome one - was Lilburn's music for Grand Canyon Uprun. Dating from 1961, the same year as his gnarly Third Symphony, these breezy sketches were written for a short film showing boats speeding along the Colorado River, powered by a Kiwi jet engine.

It's the perfect image to showcase the resourcefulness and ingenuity we New Zealanders are so proud of and Zephyr plays these sunny miniatures as if they know it.

What: Dalecarlia Clarinet Quintet, Fjarran
Rating: 5/5

What: Shadows and Light: Symphonic Compositions by Kenneth Young
Rating: 4/5

What: Zephyr, Music for Winds (all Atoll, through Ode Records)
Rating: 5/5
Verdict: Three of the year's best vie for Vodafone vote