1982 saw a reduction in the quantity and variety of new releases. Though numerous important works were introduced to the American record audience for the first time, there was still the notion that the 36th recording of a Tchaikovsky symphony with just anybody was actually going to find a vast audience.
The digital-recording method has taken over almost completely. This new year promises the arrival of the laser-read compact disk that eventually should eliminate the 12-inch vinyl LP altogether. Ironically, this grand new step into audio realism happens at a time when fewer and fewer really interesting performances are being released.
Having said all this, the following recordings seem to me to be exceptional and among the best of the releases of last year. They are listed in no particular order of preference. Of course, I do not pretend to have heard every record released during this time.
* J. S. Bach: Goldberg Variations. Glenn Gould. (CBS Masterworks Digital - IM 37779). Bach's remarkable set of variations were the vehicle for the late Glenn Gould's legendary recording debut in 1955. This rerecording, done almost 26 years later, offers further insights into the musical and analytical mind of an acclaimed eccentric and musical genius, and manages to be equally compelling in complementary fashion to the original classic performance.
* Leos Janacek: ''The Cunning Little Vixen.'' Lucia Popp, Eva Randova, Dalibor Jedlicka. Vienna Philharmonic, Sir Charles Mackerras. (London Digital - LDR-72010). London's Janacek opera cycle forges along with a superb account of a work full of haunting moments and grand interludes. As the Vixen and her suitor, the Fox, Lucia Popp and Eva Randova sing beguilingly, and Sir Charles Mackerras conjures powerful and bewitching sounds from the glorious Vienna Philharmonic.
* Stephen Sondheim: ''Merrily We Roll Along.'' Original Broadway cast recording. (RCA Red Seal CBL1-4197). In a year that brought us recordings of the musically shoddy ''Dreamgirls'' and the often lovely ''Nine,'' Sondheim's work stands apart, as it does every time he puts pen to verse and music paper. This is a vintage - and structurally sophisticated - Sondheim score with predictably remarkable lyrics. It is superbly recorded, and is released on RCA's high-quality ''Half-Speed Mastered'' line.
* Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58. Rudolf Serkin, piano. Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa. (TELARC Digital DG-10064 ). This second release in what promises to be an entire Serkin/Ozawa/BSO Beethoven piano concerto cycle finds Serkin in a thoughtful, elegaic mood. His playing, at once subdued and beautiful, is touchingly autumnal in quality. Ozawa partners the pianist attentively, and the sound is stunning.
* Jan Sibelius: ''Karelia Suite,'' Op. 11; Valse Triste, Op. 44; ''En Saga,'' Op. 9; ''Pohjola's Daughter,'' Op. 49. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, Colin Davis. (Philips 9500 893). This is a glorious supplement to the complete boxed set of symphonies Philips released several years back with Davis and the BSO. Davis is the preeminent Sibelian of the day, and of course the BSO is one of the great orchestras of the world - a winning combination indeed.
* Wagner: Wesendonk Songs, arias from ''Lohengrin,'' ''Die Walkure,'' ''Parsifal.'' Regine Crespin. (Seraphim S-60375). Crespin's is one of the very special voices of the past 30 years, though not without flaws, as this album reveals. Yet, the ''Walkure'' and ''Parsifal'' selections alone justify her reputation as a superb interpreter and singing actress. Seraphim does the collector a grand service in reissuing her finest recorded effort and a great Wagner album.
* Jaromir Weinberger: ''Schwanda the Bagpiper.'' Hermann Prey, Lucia Popp, Siegfried Jerusalem, Siegmund Nimsgern. Munich Radio Orchestra, Heinz Wallberg. (CBS Masterworks M3-36926). What fun to discover a delightful operatic work for the first time, and in a superior performance as well! One encounter with this ''Schwanda'' will have you wondering why this work is not done regularly, and have you going back again and again.
* Shostakovitch: Symphony No. 10. Berlin Philharmonic. (DG Digital 2532 030). Karajan's records are almost invariably remarkable, and DG has released a good deal of Karajan this year. He made a recording of this very work in the '60s, but this particular performance of the mighty Shostakovitch Tenth has to rank as one of his finest recordings - interpretively and sonically dazzling.
* Steve Reich: ''Tehillim.'' Steve Reich and Musicians, George Manahan. (ECM-Warner Bros. ECM-1-1215). This joyous piece marks a new step in Reich's development as a composer from the so-called minimalist school. The recording serves as the ideal introduction to Reich for the uninitiated, and as a particularly felicitous example of composer and recording company working together.
* Stravinsky: Stokowski Conducts Stravinsky: ''Le Sacre du Printemps,'' ''Firebird,'' ''Petrouchka.'' The Philadelphia Orchestra. (A limited edition available for $25 through the Philadelphia Orchestra Marathon, 1420 Locust Street, Philadelphia, Pa. 19102.) True, this is not strictly a commercial release. However, it brilliantly honors one of the great originals of this or any time. Stokowski was a performer, and these recordings - from '27 and '37 - are splendid examples of his unique art.
* Gustav Mahler: ''Das Lied von der Erde.'' Jessye Norman, Jon Vickers. London Symphony Orchestra, Colin Davis. (Philips 6514 112). This release is a top contender for the best-recorded ''Das Lied'' ever. Davis is in fine form; Jon Vickers brings the right weight and intensity of voice; Jessye Norman sets a new standard in this stereo age for this score.
* Alexander Zemlinsky: ''Lyric'' symphony. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Julia Varady. Berlin Philharmonic, Lorin Maazel. (DG Digital 2532 021). The hitherto ''unknown'' ''Lyric'' symphony has been compared to Mahler's ''Das Lied,'' but sounds more like early Schonberg, whom Zemlinsky taught briefly. The score is richly post-romantic. Maazel's reading is at once thrilling and sumptuous.
* ''The Tango Project.'' William Schimmel, accordian; Michael Sahl, piano; Stan Kurtis, violin. (Nonesuch/Digital D-79030). Thirteen tangos, including ''Jalousie,'' make up this engaging record. Off-beat, perhaps, and thoroughly enjoyable. The freshest release of the year.