Three artists whose sounds are music to this critic's ears

In any critic's experience, there are particular performers he or she looks forward to hearing under just about any circumstances. I have my own personal list of favorites, three of whom I was able to catch up with here this season:

Benita Valente

After many years of making music on an uncommonly and consistently high level , Benita Valente is finally garnering the popular acclaim which critical accolades would convince one that she has always had. She covered herself with glory in the new production of Handel's ''Rinaldo'' - given to the Metropolitan Opera by the Canadian government to commemorate the house's centennial - by stopping the show cold for several minutes after her haunting, limpid rendering of ''Lascia ch'io pianga.''

Recitalgoers have known for years what Miss Valente delivers - one of the finest evenings of lieder to be heard anywhere. But even by her standards, Miss Valente's recital at the 92nd Street Y last month was outstanding. The program comprised songs by Mozart, Debussy, Schumann, Barber, and Rodrigo. Mozart is something of a specialty for this soprano, so it was no surprise that the songs were projected with delicacy, rich nuance, and a pervasive sense of something brewing just under the surface of the music. The Schumann also captured a perfect mood, sustained with clear vocalism, as well as a rich feeling for the words. The Spanish songs took on an altogether different color in the voice - more vibrancy, a shade more vibrato in the sound, a bit more edge in the projection.

For me, however, the Debussy proved a revelation. Rare is the singer who has just the right sound for this music - a voice at once beautiful, yet capable of a certain Gallic cutting edge. Rarer still is that particular singer whose French pronunciation and comprehension are sufficiently idiomatic to enter properly the introspective, shadowy world Debussy creates in his songs. Miss Valente has it all, and she uses these gifts subtly, sensitively, exquisitely. Throughout the program, pianist Cynthia Raim was a partner, not just an accompanist - playing with passion, nuance, and an ever-alert ear to what magic Miss Valente was invoking dynamically and coloristically.

Janos Starker

Janos Starker is unique. I can think of no other cellist who plays with the combination of authority, experience, tonal variety, complete musical comprehension, and singular dedication to the music at hand.

One listens to Starker secure in the realization that music is what matters, not mere personality or career trappings. He played Erno Dohnanyi's rarely heard , yet beautiful, ''Konzertstucke'' for cello and orchestra, again at the 92nd Street Y. The ensemble was the Y Chamber Orchestra, music director Gerard Schwarz conducting. Since the writing is somewhat string-heavy, a full symphony orchestra would have swamped the cello at every juncture.

What always strikes one with Starker is the intensity of the playing, as well as the astounding variety of timbres, colors, and dynamics he elicits from his basically lean, contained tone. And it is an aural palette that is specifically generated for the piece at hand. His colors in Dvorak are not those used in Bach; they bear little similarity to the wash of tones heard in this Dohnanyi. Thus this particular Sunday afternoon in March offered the double chance of hearing the exceptional musician in a piece that was no doubt new to almost everyone there. It is, incidentally, well worth a stereo digital recording with Mr. Starker as soloist. But then again, Starker's entire repertoire should be re-recorded as a legacy to future generations of musicians, to be pondered and cherished.

Maurizio Pollini

Pianist Pollini can be exasperating, cold as ice, eccentric, but never dull.

His Carnegie Hall recital last month featured works by Schumann and Chopin. The one quality that always emerges from Pollini is nobility, and this was as noble a ''Kreisleriana'' as one could expect to hear - patrician, superbly voiced, wonderfully clear of line in the busiest moments, and elegant in the quieter passages. But Schumann is more than noble; he is passionate and achingly tender as well. Pollini has never been at his best in those aspects of musicmaking. So one had to be content with the organization, the sense of eight sections knitted into a powerful whole - a sense that eludes many of those who actually bring the introspective more convincingly to life.

In Chopin, Pollini has always been a breath of fresh air. He seems to clear away the cobwebs of tradition with his directness, his unwillingness to sentimentalize, to tenderize, this music. Pollini reminds us that Chopin is one of the finest composers for the keyboard. On the scheduled part of the program he played the First Scherzo and the First Ballade, as well as two Nocturnes. The fingering was astounding - Pollini possesses one of the legendary techniques of any age - and musically invigorating. At times one seemed to be hearing the works for the first time.

In the Nocturnes, his ability to sustain a quiet line and suffuse it with tension brought a different dimension to the music than the sort of flaccid beauty we tend to think of as the norm. Pollini can be uncompromising, but his audience has apparently come to expect nothing less. He rewarded them with three dazzling encores - two Etudes and another Scherzo.

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