Our critic's choice: the 10 best classical recordings of '87

This was not a banner year for new classical record releases. In fact, my list includes three historic reissues. Compact discs continue to dominate the market, even in historic reissues, with black vinyl playing a rapidly diminishing role. BEETHOVEN: Symphonies Nos. 1, 4, 6, and 7; ``Prometheus'' and ``Leonore No. 1'' overtures. BBC Symphony Orchestra, Arturo Toscanini, conductor. (EMI/Seraphim, mono, three LPs, IC-6156) - Several of these performances, taped live between 1935 and '39, have been available on Seraphim, but the exceptional Seventh is new. All have been revitalized sonically, with remarkable DDM pressings, to give a vivid reminder of Toscanini's genius. DVORAK: ``Rusalka.'' Benackova; Soukupova; Ochman; Novak. Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Vlacav Neumann, conductor. (Denon/Supraphon, three digital CDs, 90C37 7201-3, 157:28 mins.) - A glorious Czech opera gloriously sung, particularly by soprano Gabriela Benackova in the title role. Usually Czech voices are a bit woolly and harsh: Hers is effortlessly, radiantly beautiful. The Czech Philharmonic plays superbly, the sound is first-rate. MAHLER: Symphony No. 3 in D minor; ``Kindertotenlieder.'' Agnes Baltsa, mezzo-soprano. Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Lorin Maazel, conductor. (CBS Masterworks, two digital CDs, M2K 42403, 137:49 mins.) - This Third is the best of Lorin Maazel's Vienna Philharmonic Mahler cycle to date and, to these ears, the best recorded performance yet of the symphony. Agnes Baltsa is unorthodox but superb in the ``Kindertotenlieder,'' which makes a particularly generous filler. MAHLER: Symphony No. 8. Soloists. London Philharmonic Orchestra, Klaus Tennstedt, conductor. (EMI/Angel, two digital CDs, CDS 7 47625 8, 82:35 mins.) - Tennstedt's variable Mahler cycle comes to an end with this extraordinary reading of the most sizable of the composer's musical musings. He suffuses it with a visionary's majesty and freshness. Even with mediocre soloists, a too-small choir, and indifferent engineering, Tennstedt galvanizes the forces to make us forget the shortcomings. MOZART: ``Die Entf"uhrung aus dem Serail.'' Gruberova; Battle; Winbergh; Zednik; Talvela. Vienna Philharmonic, Sir Georg Solti, conductor. (London, two digital CDs, 417 402-2, 124:15 mins.) - Beautiful playing and engineering highlight Solti's way with this incandescent score - vigorous yet mellow, tender yet propulsive, and always reminding us of the composer's genius for writing so much consistently sublime music. Edita Gruberova was Solti's Konstanze of choice, and she is brilliant throughout. Kathleen Battle and Martti Talvela are also uncommonly fine. STRAUSS: ``Ariadne auf Naxos.'' Tomowa-Sintow; Battle; Baltsa; Lakes; Prey. Vienna Philharmonic, James Levine, conductor. (Deutsche Grammophon, two digital CDs, 419 225-2, 124:54 mins.) - A fine recording of Strauss's quasi-chamber opera made memorable by Anna Tomowa-Sintow's radiant Ariadne. Agnes Baltsa's impetuous Composer, Kathleen Battle's soft-grained but beguiling Zerbinetta, and Hermann Prey's imposing Music Master are lavish assets. James Levine conducts the score lovingly, if a bit mooningly, and the Vienna Philharmonic plays superbly. STRAUSS: ``Capriccio.'' Schwarzkopf; Ludwig; Gedda; Fischer-Dieskau; W"achter; Hotter. Philharmonia Orchestra, Wolfgang Sawallisch, conductor. (EMI/Angel, analog mono, two CDs, CDS 7 49014 8, 134:58 mins.) - ``Capriccio'' has always been my favorite later Strauss opera, a jewel of a work that deals with the issue of words versus music. This recording, always a classic, is now superbly refurbished on two CDs, and now takes its rightful place as one of the great opera recordings. STRAUSS: ``Don Quixote''; ``Till Eulenspiegels.'' Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, conductor. (Deutsche Grammophon, digital CD, 419 599-2, 58:32 mins.) - I cannot imagine a list without at least one recording by Herbert von Karajan. His re-recordings of the major Strauss tone poems have been uneven, but these two performances are stunning - passionate, expansive, richly evocative. In the ``Quixote,'' cellist Ant'onio Meneses compensates for his whining tone with committed, expressive playing. STRAUSS: Symphonia Domestica; ``Burleske.'' Daniel Barenboim, piano. Berlin Philharmonic, Zubin Mehta, conductor. (CBS Masterworks, digital CD, MK 42322, 65:32 mins.) - An unexpectedly thoughtful, caring performance of Strauss's neglected tone poem, with Zubin Mehta proving his mettle as a Straussian with the magnificent Berlin Philharmonic. The ``Burleske'' for piano and orchestra is a splendid bonus, and Mehta and Daniel Barenboim attack it with great gusto. VERDI: ``Macbeth.'' Warren; Rysanek; Bergonzi; Hines. Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Erich Leinsdorf, conductor. (RCA Victor Opera Series, analog stereo, two CDs, 4516-2-RG, 130:16 mins.) - RCA's technically flawed recording of Verdi's ``Macbeth'' nevertheless remains the best because of Leonard Warren's magnificent performance in the title role, and Leonie Rysanek's legendary and elemental Lady. Now as part of a new Victor series of operas on CD, it deserves particular commendation.

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