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  

THE GIRL WITH THE ORANGE LIPS: FALLA: Psyche; EARL KIM: Where Grief Slumbers; RAVEL: Three Poems of Stephane Mallarme; STRAVINSKY: Two poems of Konstantin Bal'mont, Three Japanese Lyrics. Dawn Upshaw, soprano, with chamber musicians. (Elektra/Nonesuch) The title track for this album of glinting, fragrant miniatures is Kim's six-song cycle, Where Grief Slumbers. This piece itself is remarkable for showing Kim, once a rather doctrinaire modernist, as still a composer of adult music (contrary to the stingless Glass wannabes), but able to shape atonality into rich lyricism as Dallapiccola and Berg did. The French poems of Rimbaud, Apollinaire, and so on are sung in English translations (by Samuel Beckett and others). Upshaw goes for clear enunciation and a forward vocalism that lets her make the right impact even with the more delicate numbers. The backup chamber musicians are superb. A

RAMEAU: Hippolyte et Aricie. Lorraine Hunt, Laurent Naouri, Anna-Maria Panzarella, Mark Padmore, and others. William Christie conducting Les Arts Florissants. (Erato) Hunt, a mezzo who couldn't sing a dull syllable to save her life, follows up her close-up recording triumph of Britten's Phaedra with the same love-crazed queen, as depicted in Rameau's sunburst masterpiece. Majestic fury is what Rameau's Phedre is all about, and Hunt presses on without giving you any cause to say she protests too much. Padmore and the others work well, but are merely fine. Christie and his polished but lively orchestra and chorus excel as expected. A

RODGERS (AND HAMMERSTEIN): Something Wonderful. Bryn Terfel, baritone; Paul Daniel, conductor. (DG) This 20-song collection is not a total disaster, but it's the pits among this batch. Up to now, I never thought Terfel could go wrong. In opera and on the recital stage, this young Welshman mixes character insight and wide-ranging vocal equipment to Handel, Mozart, Wagner, and beyond. Some of the music here, like the Carousel Soliloquy, ''Beautiful Mornin'," and the title cut, ''Something Wonderful,'' thrives under Terfel's manly treatment. But to hear his smirking cutesiness in ''June Is Bustin' Out All Over'' is to be upchuckin' your breakfast. Other misdemeanors, while not really crimes, will go unmentioned. C

SCHOENBERG: Pierrot Lunaire; BOULEZ: Improvisation sur Mallarme No. 2, Eclat; CRUMB: Night Music I; DALLAPICCOLA: Concerto for Christmas 1956, Parole di San Paolo; DLUGOSZEWSKI: Fire Fragile Flight; POUSSEUR: Trois chants sacres; WEILL (arranged by Berio): ''Surabaya Johnny.'' Orchestra of Our Time, conductor Joel Thome, with various singers. (Vox Box CDX5144) The reported push for this recent compilation was the group's performance of Pierrot. Thome's five players bring consistent finesse and virtuosity to Schoenberg's mercurially self-transforming chamber score, and Maureen McNalley packs a punch (sometimes velvet-covered) as the singer and reciter of these frightening, weird, hilarious, and--yes--moony poems. The late Jan de Gaetani's legendary performance (sometimes like a drugged priestess) in the Crumb is happily preserved. Boulez's pieces are done with an maximum of delicacy and brilliance, as is Lucia Dlugoszewski's sizzling rocket. Dallapiccola is treated like the master he was, and Pousseur's sub-mastership gets a kindly break from all concerned. Berio's heavy-drum version of the chilling Kurt Weill song is marred only by Johanna Albrecht's refusal to go the emotional limit, although she sings colorfully. The other fine singers are Benita Valente and Valarie Lamoree. The English translation by the late Cathy Berberian, for whom Berio made this arrangement, lacks the bite and rawness of, for instance, Michael Feingold's. A bigger flaw in this album is (except for Pierrot) a lack of texts and translations. B

TAN: MARCO POLO. I guess engineers and record producers have to be very careful about balances when taping theater pieces at live performances. It's the major problem with this opera, recorded in Amsterdam. As with the Copenhagen Lulu, the trouble is in the first half, but it's more damaging here because of composer-conductor Tan Dun's adventurous idea of not merely juxtaposing Western and Eastern methods of singing and playing but transforming the two methods into a new ''compound.'' At City Opera, where Tan and some of the Amsterdam cast performed this work, the combination of Western coloratura and whiplash Chinese phrase-endings was startling. On the disc, a lot of them are faint hints. But when the opera gets going, the sound balance improves. In librettist Paul Griffiths's tale of Marco Polo's journey to China--and the travels of the individual questing mind--high-flying tenor Thomas Young is the mature, remembering Polo, and ardent mezzo Alexandra Montano (remember her at Mannes College?) is the eager young Marco. They weren't heard at City Opera, but the remarkable Susan Botti, Shi-Zheng Chen, and Stephen Bryant are terrific here, as are the instrumentalists from East and West. B  

WAGNER: Siegfried-Idyll; VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis; SCHOENBERG: Veklarte Nacht. Symphony of the Air, conductor Leopold Stokowski. (Bridge) This is a late item in Bridge's series featuring Library of Congress performances by some of this half-century's legends. Given Stokowski's reputation for souping up classics with neon-lit timbral emphases and taffy-pull phrasing, these warhorses emerge in fine trim, with a strong emotional pull from start to end. Many of today's young hotshot conductors could learn from this disc. The Symphony of the Air, by the way, had been Toscanini's NBC Symphony, from which Stokie was fired as coconductor by Toscanini because of differences over modernism. (Toscanini was against it.) Stokie's success on this record is thus flavored with irony.Incidentally, the players include such now famous names as Michael Tree, Charles Treger, Leonard Arner, Henry Schuman, and Charles Russo. A

''WITH A SONG IN MY HEART'': Robert White, tenor; various orchestras and solo musicians. (Song Lion) I'd call this three-disc compendium of 66 songs an ideal party album, except that conversation would kill White's amalgam of delicately nuanced vocalism and heart-core treatment of the lyrics. Remastered from his own BBC radio shows and several earlier recordings, most of these songs--ranging from elaborate Handel oratorio arias through 19th-century salon pieces, the most potent of Irish pseudo-folk songs, and Broadway and Hollywood standards--are sung irresistibly. Irving Berlin and Gershwin get the same TLC as Michael Balfe's ''Come Into the Garden, Maud.'' The only flies in the whiskey barrel are ''Night and Day'' and a couple of Rodgers & Hart items, which White sings too operatically for the music and his Irish-tenorino voice. The rest is glory. A MINUS


If you don't find the Cala disc in a store, phone them at 1-800-879-2252 or write them at 380 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10017, or 409 More Road, Clifton Park, NY 12065.

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