A classical potpourri: the year's best. New compact discs tumbling in price, soaring in quality
The big news in the recording industry this year is the arrival, in a big way , of the compact disc, known in general as the CD. Finally, one can go into a record store and actually find a good assortment of CDs. And the prices have begun to tumble. At the same time, CD players are becoming more affordable, while their internal features continue to improve in matters of performance and user convenience.
Also of note, Angel Records has begun to have its most important releases pressed in West Germany using the Direct Metal Mastering process (DMM), and the results are exceptional. In another area, RCA has begun its imposing 15-volume reissue of the Arthur Rubinstein Chopin collection in superb remasterings and quiet pressings.
What follows is a randomly organized list of my favorite recordings of the past year. It is in no way comprehensive, but merely reflects the best of what I have had a chance to hear in 1984.
1. Strauss: ''Four Last Songs''; ''Six Songs'' (orchestrated by Heger). Jessye Norman, soprano. Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Kurt Masur conducting. (Philips LP 6414 322/ CD 411 052-2.) Strauss's ''Four Last Songs'' were written with Kirsten Flagstad's voice in mind. But Jessye Norman seems to be born to sing this music. Flooding the lines with opulent, rich sound, she rides the climaxes with thrilling ease, yet is caressing in the quiet moments as well. Her attention to text is remarkable, and the voice has been beautifully captured by the engineers.
2. Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 in B flat, Op. 100. St. Louis Symphony, Leonard Slatkin conducting. (RCA Red Seal digital: LP ARC1-5035/CD RCD1-5035.) The RCA recording debut of Leonard Slatkin and his St. Louis Symphony is a triumph. This is one of the finest Prokofiev Fifths on records - low on mere bombast, high on color, attention to detail, and scrupulous builds of climaxes.
3. Mozart: ''Die Zauber flote,'' with Margaret Price, Peter Schreier, Kurt Moll, Mikael Melbye, Lucianna Serra, Theo Adam. Staatskapelle Dresden, Sir Colin Davis conducting. (Philips digital: LP 411 459-1/CD 411 459-2.) Sir Colin Davis's ''Flute'' is wonderfully theatrical, reverential, and witty in just the right degrees. The cast, for the most part, is extraordinary, the sound superb. On CD, one can program the player to delete all the dialogue if one wishes - a most thoughtful way to handle the matter of banding on the CD format.
4. Mahler: Symphony No. 9. Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan conducting. (Deutsche Grammophon digital CD 410 726-2.) A scant year after the release of Karajan's studio recording of Mahler's Ninth comes this digital version, taped live and released only on CD. It is one of the great Mahler recordings, surpassing the already dazzling performance on records. If you've been looking for a reason to invest in a CD player, this recording might just be the one to convince you.
5. Jongen: ''Symphonie Concertante.'' Franck: ''Fantasie in A, Pastorale.'' Michael Murray, organ. San Francisco Symphony, Edo de Waart conducting. (Telarc digital LP (forthcoming) DG-10096/CD CD-80096.) For the first recording of the new Ruffatti organ in Davies Hall in San Francisco, the Telarc people chose one of the grandest of organ-and-orchestra works, Joseph Jongen's thrilling if little-known ''Symphonie Concertante.'' The recording, as heard on CD, is positively awesome, and the performance, though lacking some punch, serves the piece well.
6. Falla: ''Nights in the Gardens of Spain.'' Albeniz: ''Rapsodia espanola.'' Turina: ''Rapsodia sinfonica.'' Alicia de Larrocha, piano. London Philharmonic Orchestra, Rafael Frubeck de Burgos conducting. (London digital LP410 289-1.) Alicia de Larrocha's first London account of this score was splendid enough. Here she improves on that reading, and is superbly abetted by Mr. Frubeck de Burgos.
7. Boulez: ''Rituel.'' ''Eclat/Multiples.'' BBC Symphony Orchestra. Ensemble Inter-Contemporain, Pierre Boulez conducting. (CBS Masterworks M 37850.) Boulez is, in many ways, the most enigmatic of today's important composers. The accessible ''Rituel'' may, therefore, be a surprise for many listeners, even though ''Eclat/Multiples'' is ultimately the more beautiful work.
8. Ghena Dimitrova: Opera Arias. Munich Radio Orchestra, Lamberto Gardelli, conducting. (EMI/Angel digital DS-38074.) Ghena Dimitrova has just exploded onto the international music scene after years of slow career-building. This album, one of the exceptional voice recital recordings of recent memory, shows a versatile artist with a voice of huge dimensions: Dimitrova seems to function tirelessly at great volume in the upper reaches, yet she can taper the sound down to bell-like pianissimos whenever the music so dictates.
9. Stravinsky: ''Oedipus Rex.'' Thomas Moser, Jessye Norman, Michel Piccoli. Chorus and Orchestra of the Bavarian Radio, Colin Davis conducting. (Orfeo digital LP S 071831 A/CD C-071-831 A.) A powerful work receives a striking performance, virtually ideally cast (particularly Jessye Norman's haunted Jocasta), and lithely, dramatically conducted by Davis.
10. Sondheim: ''Sunday in the Park with George.'' Original cast album. (RCA Red Seal digital LP HBC1-5042/CD RCD1-5042.) An exceptional recording of a musically inventive and intriguing Sondheim show. On CD in particular, the sound is so clear, you could hear a pin drop in the recording studio.
11. Strauss: ''Der Rosenkavalier.'' Agnes Baltsa, Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Janet Perry, Kurt Moll. Vienna Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, conducting. (Deutsche Grammophon digital 4LP 413 163-1/4CD 413 163-2.) As orchestrally sumptuous a ''Rosenkavalier'' as one is ever going to hear. Karajan's way with the score is unequaled today, and most of his cast complies to his lilting, opulent wishes with style and finesse. On CD this is an unusually rich listening experience.
12. Gounod: ''Romeo et Juliette.'' Bidu Sayao, Jussi Bjorling. Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Emil Cooper, conducting. (The performance of Feb. 1, 1947). (MET-11 - available for a $125 contribution to the Met.) This set serves as a reminder of what opera was once all about - thrilling singing by artists who knew their strengths and their limitations. Bjorling is in magnificent form, as is Sayao. The set pays tribute to them both, as well as to the company that could put together this sort of performance on a regular basis.