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Recordings The year's best

In previous years, it was no problem choosing the 20 best releases. This year, however, I'd be hard put to go far beyond the dozen listed below. Too many new recordings have major flaws. For instance, the superb Colin Davis performance of Handel's ``Messiah'' was kept off the list because of Simon Estes's discouragingly poor singing. Claudio Abbado's French language Verdi ``Don Carlos'' -- a recorded first -- is all but sabotaged by inferior singing and enunciation. And so it goes. 1. Anna Tomowa-Sintow: Famous Opera Arias. Munich Radio Orchestra, Peter Sommer, conductor (Orfeo digital S 106 841 A, LP only). Miss Tomowa-Sintow sings arias by Mozart, Weber, Wagner, Strauss, Puccini, Cilea, Giordano, and Verdi. Each is sung with stylistically authentic drama and passion and with exquisite musicianship. In every way, a vocal and artistic triumph.

2. Beethoven: Violin Sonatas, Op. 12. Gidon Kremer, violin; Martha Argerich, piano (Deutsche Grammophon 415 138-1 [LP]; 415 138-2 [CD]). The record catalog is not wanting for impressive partnerships in this repertoire, but there is something so spontaneous, so alert to nuance and drama, in the way Kremer and Argerich make music together. Glorious on all counts.

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3. Elgar and Walton: Cello Concertos. Yo-Yo Ma, cello; London Symphony Orchestra, Andre Previn, conductor (CBS Masterworks digital IM-39541 [LP]; MK-39541 [CD]). Ma, the outstanding young cellist of the day, gives these autumnal concertos a profundity and a heartfelt communicative thrust that make the readings among the best either concerto has yet received on disc. Previn, who knows his way thoroughly around this repertoire, is a moving partner.

4. Kunssen: ``Where the Wild Things Are.'' Rosemary Hardy, soprano; Mary King, mezzo-soprano; London Sinfonietta, Oliver Knussen, conductor (Arabesque, digital, 6535-L [LP]; Z6535-L [CD]). This 35-minute fantasy opera, based on the Maurice Sendak story of the same title, is a charmer. Though the singing is not first-rate, and though the slightly distant sound takes some getting used to, this is a delightful addition to the recorded operatic repertoire.

5. Liszt: ``Ann'ees de P`elerinage -- Premi`ere ann'ee: La Suisse.'' Joseph Villa, piano. (Second Hearing GS 9006, CD only). I don't know what I liked more -- the glorious piano sound or Joseph Villa's to-the-manner-born musicmaking. His rare balance of technical dazzle and poetry is ideally Lisztian, and makes for a richly rewarding musical journey.

6. Mahler: Seventh Symphony. Chicago Symphony, Claudio Abbado, conductor (Deustche Grammophon 413 773-1 [2-LP]; 413 773-2 [2-CD]). Conductors are finally coming to terms with Mahler's Seventh as a work, and of the available recordings, Abbado's comes closest to wrestling with and conquering the Mahlerian demons that lie at the core of the music. The sound is superb, and the Chicago Symphony plays magnificently.

7. Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Vergine (1610). Taverner Consort, Choir, and Players; Andrew Parrott, conductor (EMI/Angel Reflexe, digital, DSB-3963 [2-LP]; CDCB-47077 [2-CD]). Monteverdi's haunting Vespers Mass is given a performance that one might very well have encountered in church in 1610. The blend of sounds from period instruments, and a choir and soloists singing in the vibratoless style of the era, all strung together with Gregorian plainchants, makes for a memorable account.

8. Reich: ``The Desert Music.'' Text by William Carlos Williams. Steve Reich and Musicians, with chorus and members of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor (Nonesuch, digital, 79101-1 [LP]; 79101-2 [CD]). Yet another new step for minimalist composer Steve Reich, who is abandoning his repetitionist roots for something more interesting rhythmically and texturally. His sonic landscapes that are at once beautiful, aurally arresting, and rich in the Hebraic mood he so vividly celebrate d in earlier works.

9. Schoenberg: ``Moses und Aron.'' Franz Mazura, baritone; Philip Langridge, tenor; Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Sir Georg Solti, conductor (London, digital, 414 264-1 [2-LP]; 414 264-2 [2-CD]). Solti proves that there is beauty, dignity, and superior drama in Schoenberg's mightily difficult serially composed opera, unfinished at the composer's death. The maestro gives a performance that will remain a landmark in the annals of 20th-century operatic musicmaking.

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10. Sondheim: ``Follies'' in Concert. New York Philharmonic, Paul Geminiani, conductor. (RCA Red Seal, digital, HBC2-7128 [2-LP]; CD to come). The likes of Carol Burnett, Lee Remick, Elaine Stritch, George Hearn, Mandy Patinkin, and many others gathered for a concert presentation of Stephen Sondheim's brilliant ``Follies'' score, lavishly partnered by the New York Philharmonic. This live ``Follies'' recording presents, for the first time, all of Sondheim's music for the show, magnificently performed.

11. Verdi: ``Un Ballo in Maschera.'' Luciano Pavarotti, Margaret Price, Renato Bruson, Kathleen Battle; the National Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Georg Solti, conductor (London, digital, 410 210-1 [3-LP]; 410 210-2 [2-CD]). What a thrill -- a real Italianate encounter with a Verdi opera, in an age where passion, excitement, and linguistic authenticity are being deleted from most studio recordings. Pavarotti is in superb voice, Margaret Price's Amelia is surprisingly convincing for so lyric a voice. The r est of the casting is first-rate, Solti conducts with pliancy and some tenderness, and the sound is dazzling, especially on CD.

12. Wagner: ``Tannh"auser.'' Lauritz Melchior, Kirsten Flagstad, Kersten Thorborg, Herbert Janssen; Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Erich Leinsdorf, conductor (MET-12, available for a $125 donation to the Metropolitan Opera Association). If anyone ever needed proof that Flagstad and Melchior were unique in the annals of opera, here it is, and in surprisingly adequate sound. The entire 1941 broadcast performance crackles -- the best ``Tannh"auser'' on records -- but the contributions of the two legendary singers is extraordinary.

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