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Critic's Choice of Recent CDs

Current releases focus on 20th-century music, legendary opera singers. RECORDINGS: REVIEW

MUSIC of the 20th century continues to be a major focus of compact disc releases from Deutsche Grammophon. Five recent multiple-disc sets offer a great deal of interest, especially since they are available at budget prices. Probably the most enticing is the two-disc set of music by Steve Reich, entitled ``Drumming'' (DC 427 428-2). Performed by Steve Reich and Musicians, the digitally remastered collection consists of some of the composer's most complex, refined, and laudable works: ``Drumming,'' a four-part, 86-minute piece of great sustained power; ``Six Pianos,'' a brilliant 24-minute excursion using the instruments for purely percussive effect; and ``Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ'' - an 18-minute atmospheric work with great appeal, despite its relatively lightweight conception.

For those who are intrigued by the recent rediscovery of the music of influential composer Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942), Deutsche Grammophon's 20th Century Classics series includes a two-disc set of the composer's four quartets, performed by the brilliant LaSalle Quartet (427 421-21).

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As the teacher of Arnold Schoenberg and a legendary figure of his time, Zemlinsky created music that both sums up 19th-century romanticism and anticipates the 20th-century Viennese preoccupation with serialism. The set is rounded out with a performance of the little-known String Quartet, No. 1, Op. 7, of Hans Erich Apostel.

Another two-disc set is a remastering of Herbert von Karajan's controversial recordings of 1973-74 of orchestral works by Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern (427 424-2).

Both Karajan and the musicians of the Berlin Philharmonic are entirely at home with the early pieces, such as Schoenberg's romantic ``Pelleas and Melisande'' Op. 5 and his lush orchestral version of ``Verkl"arte Nacht'' Op. 4, as well as Berg's sumptuous ``Three Pieces for Orchestra'' Op. 6, and Webern's Opus 1 ``Passacaglia'' and his coloristic ``Five Movements'' Op. 5 and ``Six Pieces for Orchestra'' Op. 6.

But there is considerable question about the suitability of Karajan's elegant approach to the austere late works of Schoenberg (``Variations for Orchestra'' Op. 31), Berg (``Three Pieces from the Lyrics Suite''), and Webern (Symphony, Op. 21). There is some merit, however, in the fact that Karajan makes the late works of serialism accessible, even if his interpretations are less than definitive.

Another three-disc set devoted to modern music offers some interesting listening. It includes three appealing neo-romantic works by composers once known for their remoteness and complexity. The featured ensemble is the Juilliard Orchestra under conductors Leonard Slatkin, Lukas Foss, and Gerard Schwarz.

Foss leads a spirited reading of Jacob Druckman's ``Chiaroscuro,'' which bristles with sonic shadows and splashes of light.

More impressive is Slatkin's offering of Joseph Schwantner's highly provocative ``Aftertones of Infinity'' which is reminiscent of the romantic modernism of Alban Berg's dramatic music.

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And then tenor Gary Lakes joins conductor Schwarz in a performance of Stephen Albert's ``Into Eclipse,'' a moving and handsome setting of lines from Ted Hughes' adaptation of Seneca's ``Oedipus.'' The recording is available from New Work Records (NW 381-2).

Another offbeat and worthwhile disc is devoted to piano music by the neglected Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu.

It includes ``Les Ritournelles,'' ``Fantaisie et Toccata,'' ``Etudes and Polkas,'' and the Sonata No. 1. The excellent performances are by Rudolf Firkusny. RCA Victor provides almost an hour of music on this excellent digital recording (7987-2-RC).

Perhaps the most surprising experimental music in recent months is found on a compact disc from Watt Works/ECM Records (833 384-2) entitled ``Michael Mantler: Live.''

Here is a remarkable set of songs to the words of Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, and Edward Gorey, composed and orchestrated by Mr. Mantler and performed by singer-speaker Jack Bruce, along with Rick Fenn (guitar), Don Preston (synthesizers), John Greaves (bass, piano), Nick Mason (drums), and Mantler on trumpet. In the vocal music of Philip Glass and John Adams we have heard valiant efforts to capture the tone, rhythm, and intonation of modern speech in music. No one, however, succeeds at this merciless endeavor quite as effectively as Mantler.

Recent compact discs have celebrated the past as well as the present.

On EMI/Angel come four outstanding digital remasters of some of the most treasured vocal music of earlier decades, sonically resurrected with great finesse.

The greatest French tenor of the century, Georges Thill, is represented with a 73-minute collection of 13 masterful selections on the disc called ``French Opera Arias'' (CDM7 695482).

Equally valuable is a collection of ``Wagnerian Opera Arias'' (CDH7 63030 2) by the celebrated soprano Kirsten Flagstad. Here is Flagstad in her prime, sounding unlike any other Wagnerian singer past or present. The digitally remastered sound is perfect, both in the grand pieces such as the Act 1 ``Doch nun von Tristan?'' from ``Tristan und Isolde'' and the scaled down ``Wesendonk Lieder'' performed here with Gerald Moore's exquisite piano accompaniment.

Less exceptional but worth the attention of opera lovers is the EMI ``Wagnerian Opera Arias'' by Lauritz Melchior (CDH7 697892), which includes lyric arias from eight of the composer's operas.

Of an entirely different significance is the ultimate Italianate theatrical communication of Claudia Muzio, in the EMI collection of ``Opera Arias and Songs'' (CDH7 697902). It takes only a moment of listening to Muzio's interpretations of ``La mamma morta'' from Giordano's ``Andrea Chenier'' or the ``Casta Diva'' from Bellini's ``Norma'' to recognize Muzio's startlingly clear mentor relationship to Maria Callas.

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