It's that time of year again when a look back at the year in recordings gives me a chance to cite and honor, in alphabetical order, the best of what I have been able to put either on my turntable or in my CD player. BEETHOVEN: Concerto No. 5 in E flat, Op. 73, ``Emperor.'' Claudio Arrau, piano. Staatskapelle Dresden, Sir Colin Davis, conductor. (Philips digital CD 416 215-2). Claudio Arrau begins his third complete cycle of the five Beethoven concertos with this remarkable account of the ``Emperor.'' Sheer bravura force is no longer this octogenarian's to command, but his insights and his eloquence, not to mention the unique beauty of his playing, show us that great music is so much more than just well-played notes. Sir Colin Davis and the Staatskapelle are superb partners throughout.
BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas No. 30 (E major, Op. 109) and No. 31 (A flat major, Op. 110). Emil Gilels, piano. (Deutsche Grammophon, digital, CD 419 174-2). These two sonatas, Emil Gilels's last recordings, are extraordinary performances - thoughtful, unmannered, superbly played. The great Russian pianist was only six sonatas away from a complete perusal of Beethoven's titanic set of 32. Fortunately, he leaves an important recorded legacy, of which this release is one of the particular glories.
BELLINI: ``I Capuleti e i Montecchi.'' Agnes Baltsa, mezzo-soprano (Romeo); Edita Gruberova, soprano (Giulietta); Dano Raffanti, tenor (Tebaldo); John Tomlinson, bass (Loren-zo); Gwynne Howell, bass (Capellio). Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Riccardo Muti conductor. (EMI/Angel, digital, 2-CD - CDCB 47387.) Just when one despairs of ever hearing really great singing on an opera set, along comes this magnificent ``Capuleti,'' recorded live, with the double feast of Edita Gruberova's exquisite Giulietta and Agnes Baltsa's thrilling Romeo. Muti leads a taut performance that generally lets his singers do what they must to make this lovely opera fly.
BERG: Violin Concerto; Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6. Pinchas Zukerman, violin. London Symphony Orchestra (Concerto) and BBC Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Boulez, conductor. (CBS Masterworks, digital, CD MK 39741.) Two works, the early ``Three Pieces'' and the late concerto, are given magnificent performances. Boulez has long been a specialist in this repertoire, and his contributions are expectedly splendid. He also gets Zukerman to give one of his most thoughtful, consistently beautiful performances in quite some time.
BRITTEN: War Requiem. Galina Vishnevskaya, soprano; Peter Pears, tenor; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone. London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Benjamin Britten, conductor. (London 2-CD 414 383-2.) This exceptional '63 recording of one of Britten's greatest works has just been reprocessed for CD to give the classic performance a new lease on life. Expect some tape hiss, as well as a new-found clarity of textures and depth of aural perspective. No other recording comes remotely within the expressive range of Britten's, recorded with the voices for whom he composed the work.
DVORAK: Symphony No. 8 in G major, Op. 88 (with ``Scherzo Capriccioso,'' Op. 66), and Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, ``From the New World.'' [London, digital, CD414 422-2 (No. 8) and CD 414 421-2 (No. 9).] I cheat, putting two releases in the place of one, but Dohn'anyi's performances are so special, so bracingly free of over-inflation, so exactly right in gesture, and so superbly played by the Cleveland Orchestra, it was impossible to choose one over the other!
NIELSEN: Symphony No. 3, Op. 27, ``Sinfonia Espansiva;'' with ``Maskerade'' overture and Clarinet Concerto, Op. 57. Olle Schill, clarinet; the Gothenberg Symphony Orchestra, Myung-Whun Chung, conductor. (BIS, digital, CD-321.) A gifted young conductor chooses, for his debut recordings, a Carl Nielson orchestral cycle. Myung-Whun Chung's second release is of the haunting Third Symphony, and he gets all the mystery and beauty out of the score. This particularly generous CD (over 67 minutes) features a deft performance of the Clarinet Concerto and the ``Maskerade'' overture.
ROSSINI: ``Il Viaggio a Reims.'' Leila Cuberli, Cecilia Gasdia, Katia Ricciarelli, sopranos; Lucia Valentini Terrani, mezzo-soprano; Francisco Araiza, Edoardo Gimenez, tenors; Leo Nucci, baritone; Enzo Dara, Ruggero Raimondi, Samuel Ramey, basses. Prague Philharmonic Chorus, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Claudio Abbado, conductor. (Deutsche Grammophon 2-CD 415 498-2.) The singing is often great, the conducting marvelous, the atmosphere electric. What makes this set irresistible, however, is the work itself - the rediscovery of a deliriously fun, comic opera, which had remained hidden since its premi`ere run in 1825. A must for any opera lover.
REGER: Variations and Fugue on a Theme by J.S. Bach, Op. 81. With Haydn: Sonata, HOB. XVI: 50. Rudolf Serkin, piano. (CBS Masterworks CD MK 39562.) Another octogenarian doing magical things for a composer he has championed throughout his career. This is a full-fledged Serkin performance, complete with breathing, humming, tapping of the pedals, and by the end, you'll want to stand and cheer. The Haydn, recorded in Vermont, is an interesting filler, but not very satisfying aurally.
STRAUSS: ``Four Last Songs;'' ``Die Heiligen drei K"onige aus Morgenland;'' ``Capriccio:'' Moonlight Music and Final Scene. Anna Tomowa-Sintow, soprano. Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, conductor. (Deutsche Grammophon CD 419 188-2.) Miss Tomowa-Sintow's way with Strauss is incomparable today, and her performances of the ``Four Last Songs'' compare favorably to any other legendary recording, except that Karajan's accompaniments set a new standard of brilliance in the music. Also, the maestro's first look at ``Capriccio'' makes one regret that he didn't tackle the entire opera, especially considering Tomowa-Sintow's idiomatic delivery - beautifully sung, sensitively interpreted. Vocally and technically, a remarkable achievement.
Thor Eckert Jr. is the Monitor's music critic.