Consumer Guide

Those who got what they didn't want for Christmas might use the refunds to raid the CD bins. Here are choices and caveats among classical (and in the case of Bryn Terfel's Rodgers and Hammerstein stint, semiclassical) discs. Because these categories suggest a much longer shelf life than pop, I've included a mix of newish recordings and some released or remastered since my last guide. Art-music is built to last, and so are its recordings. Readers, also, are entitled to have memories jogged as to my grading system. A is excellent; C is fair; F is lousy; Z is impossible. The best of the bunch is labeled Best, the worst Pizz--short for pizzicato and a homonym for pits.

BERNSTEIN: Clarinet Sonata; CORIGLIANO: Soliloquy; DEBUSSY: First Rhapsody, Little Piece; POULENC: Sonata for Two Clarinets, Sonata for Clarinet and Piano; SIEGMEISTER: Prelude, Blues, and Finale. Stanley Drucker, clarinet, and assisting musicians. (Cala: CACD0509) This is one of a series of Cala CDs, each devoted to a New York Philharmonic principal player. This disc reaffirms that Drucker, who joined the orchestra 50 years ago at age 19, is the finest classical clarinetist since Reginald Kell. In range of tone colors, security of line, unfussed agility, and stylistic probity, he has no peer that I know of. Siegmeister's work is the least known of this set, and its craftsmanship makes up for its conventionality. Busiest among the other superb musicians is pianist Kazuko Hayami, but let's not ignore coclarinetist Naomi Druckman, Stanley's wife. A

BERG: Lulu. Constance Hauman, soprano, and others. Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, conductor Ulf Schirmer. (Chandos 9540-3 Discs) Taken from live performances of an internationally praised production in Copenhagen last season, this set is spoiled, particularly in its first half, by the imbalance of in-your-face orchestral sound and faraway (rear stage?) singing. Otherwise, the greatest 20th-century opera gets a powerful if imperfect performance. Hauman, well known in her native U.S. as Richard Strauss's Zerbinetta and Bernstein's Cunegonde, easily grasps all the title role's above-staff options and puts lots of temperament into her words. A persistent tremolo is her only problem. Julia Juan as Lulu's sometime lover, Countess Geschwitz, uses her smooth mezzo to emphasize the woman's unflagging devotion. Michael Myers sings the suicidal painter intensely. The ancient pimp, Schigolch, is sung by almost ancient Theo Adam like a baritone half his age. Schirmer commands both power and lyricism from his virtuoso orchestra. And it's nice to hear an expectedly stuffy audience applaud Lulu's long (spoken) speech about her escape from jail. I wish they had awakened the goofs in the control room. B

BRITTEN: The Rescue of Penelope; Phaedra. Janet Baker, Lorraine Hunt, and others. Halle Orchestra, conductor Kent Nagano. (Erato) Rescue is a symphony-sized concert version recently assembled by Chris de Souza, Donald Mitchell, and Colin Matthews from music Britten wrote for Edward Sackville-West's 1943 radio play about Ulysses's homecoming. Instead of dialogue, the reconstructors employ a narrator with incidental singing. The music is Britten at his youthful, unashamedly romantic, cleverly theatrical best. (The trumpet work won specific praise from George Bernard Shaw.) Janet Baker, having retired from singing, delivers the narration with enthusiasm for heroism that's spiced with sarcasm for the villains. Phaedra, composed in 1975 (Britten's penultimate year) specially for Baker, has entered its second generation proudly with this performance by Lorraine Hunt. The text is 15 minutes of excerpts from Robert Lowell's hard-nosed translation of Racine's tragedy, and the music makes manic-depression into intense, unsettling opera. Without aping Baker's famous performance, Hunt turns up her own brand of emotional heat. Nagano and his band are ideal. A

CARTER: The Complete Music for Solo Piano. Charles Rosen, pianist. (Bridge 9090) The disc's title is not so formidable as it looks. Carter has written, at least for publication, only three such pieces: the 1946 Sonata, Night Fantasies (1980), and 90 Plus (1994). The Sonata reveals Carter on the road from Copland-era American neoclassicism. On his horizon were refractions of musical time, as well as montages of symphonic movement. This all would happen while dozens of younger composers' fads passed in and out. Rosen, a longtime Carter interpreter, finds the contrasts of touch and weight that pervade 90 Plus, written for the 90th birthday of composer Goffredo Petrassi and one of the more ambitious of the many ''occasional'' pieces Carter turned out for friends and colleagues. Rosen, one of the four pianists who commissioned Night Fantasies, emphasizes the dazzle of its high-keyboard flashes, the numbing bass thoughts of doom, and the surprising shifts between shock-chords and slender ruminations at the center. The Sonata's rhythmic zest and almost laid-back tunes get charming play. The disc ends with a short talk between (searchingly analytic) pianist and (mock self-deprecating) composer. A PLUS

FAURE: Pavane, Sicilienne Masques et Bergamasques; RAVEL: Le tombeau de Couperin, Pavane pour une infante defunte; SATIE (orchestrated by Debussy): Gymnopedies Nos. 1 and 2. Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. (DG) The conductorless Orpheus takes to this music of exquisite taste and almost lulling lyricism like a golden-roasted chicken to wine sauce. There's nothing about the music to tell 90 per cent of today's classical audience, but I envy those who are hearing it for the first time, particularly when performed as suavely as on this disc. A

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