CLASSICAL Dvorak, Antonin: Symphony No. 9 in E minor (''From the New World''), Chicago Symphony Orchestra, James Levine. RCA Red Seal DIGITAL ATC1-4248. - There are musically more persuasive performances of this almost hackneyed work, but none so stunningly well recorded and none put forth with such volatile intensity. The Chicago Symphony plays superbly for Levine, and he gets exceptional results in the dramatics department. Some may find it overdone; I found it bracing, invigorating, and very convincing. Also, this is not a purely theatrical reading , as the haunting second movement amply reveals. The pressing is superb, the orchestra glorious, the engineering as good as you'll find today. - Thor Eckert Jr.
Schumann, Robert: Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54. Rachmaninoff, Sergei: Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18. Alicia de Larrocha, piano. Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Charles Dutoit. London CS 7207. - It's rather refreshing not having the Schumann paired with the Grieg for a change. And it's perfectly wonderful having Miss de Larrocha in such good form in both works. The Schumann gains immeasurably for her deliberation and understatement. The Rachmaninoff, on the other hand, never misses the full romanticism of the idiom, even while managing to be convincingly less heart-on-sleeve or powerhouse than most readings. In Charles Dutoit, Miss de Larrocha has a fine partner and the sound is first-rate. - Thor Eckert Jr.
Strauss, Richard: ''Four Last Songs''; ''Death and Transfiguration.'' Lucia Popp, soprano, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Klaus Tennstedt. EMI/Angel DIGITAL DS-37887. - These songs were written with Kirsten Flagstad in mind, and in fact the legendary Wagnerienne presented them to the world. On records, the voices have lightened and lightened, until now we have Lucia Popp, a delectable soubrette, but hardly vocally correct for these rich autumnal pieces. She manages fairly well, but her maestro turns in the finest conducting of a performance of these songs since George Szell's (with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, also on Angel). There is a sense of wonderment, of benevolent uneasiness, and finally radiant peace in his performance. And on the reverse side, Tennstedt's account of the mighty tone poem ''Death and Transfiguration'' is among the finest to be had in stereo, surely a standard-setter for this early part of the digital age. - Thor Eckert Jr.
Tchaikovsky, Peter Ilyich: Piano Concerto No. 1. Martha Argerich, piano. Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Kirill Kondrashin. Philips 6514 118. - This live recording is issued as a tribute to Kirill Kondrashin, the late Russian expatriate maestro. Curiously, he was the conductor on the celebrated 1959 Van Cliburn performance on RCA, which has been one of the best-selling classical records in history. Here he has a different sort of soloist, the firebrand Martha Argerich. This is no subtle performance, but as it is played on a turntable, it threatens to melt the vinyl on which it is recorded. Other performances will bring out the poetry and the pathos in the score, but Argerich's way - superbly abetted by Kondrashin - is guaranteed to raise the neck hair high time after time. - Thor Eckert Jr.
''Thomas Richner Plays Mozart and Bach.'' Towerhill T-1011. - Pianists who know how to find the genuine life and emotion that are in the pages of Mozart are rarer than one might think. The apparent simplicity is but a ruse, and as with all of Mozart's music, subtext is what it's all about. Mr. Richner fully understands this and brings the selections - the C minor Fantasie, the C major (K. 545) Sonata, and the K, 511 A minor Rondo - memorably to life. Then he turns around and tackles Bach on the piano, which is supposed to be anathema in this ''purist'' day. And Mr. Richner chooses the mighty Bosendorfer, no less, which reaches down to C three octaves below middle C to make his case, and make his case he does, in transcriptions of four chorales. In all, a tasteful, beautiful record from an artist who has spent most of his life contemplating the Mozart piano literature. - Thor Eckert Jr.