**** ARTHUR RUBINSTEIN, "The Rubinstein Collection," RCA Red Seal. The most lavish CD tribute ever produced for a performer, this deluxe package of 94 CDs and coffee-table book is a princely gift. It costs $1,300.99 and is packed in a handsome suitcase too large for carry-on. Pianist Arthur Rubinstein was arguably the most reliably poetic musician of the 20th century. He was also loyal to RCA, so here is his career practically complete, from 1929 to 1976, including the concertos with great conductors and the recordings of the so-called "million-dollar trio" (his ensemble with Heifetz and Piatigorsky), all in carefully re-engineered sound. This is a very classy and life-affirming companion with which to enter a new millennium.
**** CHOPIN, "Piano Concertos," Deutsche Grammophon. Krystian Zimerman may well be the greatest Polish pianist since Rubinstein, and this coupling of Chopin's two piano concertos, conducted by the pianist (with a handpicked orchestra of Polish players) simply takes the breath away. Zimerman's microscopic yet loving attention to detail (the first rehearsal lasted 21 days, and hundreds of hours of rehearsal followed) pays off. Every chord, every nuance in orchestra and piano, is a poetic event. I can think of nothing quite like this in the history of recording.
**** ARCADI VOLODOS, "Volodos Live at Carnegie Hall," Sony Classical. What's to say? This has been a year for the keyboard (see below as well). Arcadi Volodos' second CD arrives with much hype. The young Russian virtuoso has been compared to Horowitz--as keyboard hotshots always are--and, of course, it's untrue. Sure, he has fingers to match Rubinstein's most famous competitor. Sure, he's incredibly exciting. But unlike Horowitz, he also has a vivid intellect and imagination. In fact, Volodos has everything. Listen to this collection of miniatures by Schumann, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin and Liszt, and be amazed.
**** BYRD, "The Complete Keyboard Music," Hyperion. Not to know the keyboard music of the English Baroque composer William Byrd is not to know one of music's extraordinary bodies of work. Yet the fact is, practically none of us knows it. These fancies and galliards and the like tend to remain in the hands of specialist composers (Glenn Gould was an exception). Here, at last, they all are, hundreds spread over seven CDs (sold for the price of five), and played with extraordinary verve and insight by Davitt Moroney on harpsichord, clavichord, organ and muselar. A fat booklet provides a fascinating guide to the magnificent and impossibly addictive adventure.
**** ADAMS, "The Earbox," Nonesuch. John Adams is one of America's great composers, and this box of 10 CDs gives an excellent overview of his career. Most of the set is gleaned from Nonesuch's extensive catalog of Adams recordings, but new are Adams' own performance of "Harmonium," and the first recordings of the orchestral showpieces "Lollapalooza" and "Slonimsky's Earbox." It is an essential item in the library of anyone who wants to understand 20th century America.
**** BACH, "Epiphany Mass," Archive. Here is what it was like to attend a Lutheran mass at Christmastime in the Leipzig church where Bach served as Kappellmeister during the last decade of his life. The complete, nearly three-hour service includes two grand cantatas, the Mass in F, chorales harmonized by Bach and a variety of organ music (by Bach and other contemporaries) that Bach would have played himself. I can't imagine that any congregation of any faith at any time in history has ever gotten a regular diet of such musical riches as Bach's did. The performances by the Gabrielli Consort & Players, directed by Paul McCreesh, are exceptionally good, which also helps make this the most inspired Christmas CD to come along in years.
*** 1/2 MOZART, "Cosi fan Tutte," Harmonia Mundi. This aggressively dramatic period-practice account of Mozart's wise and witty operatic meditation on human frailty is thrillingly conducted by Rene Jacobs and features early-music specialist singers, including the stunning Veronique Gens. But it also includes a CD-ROM guide to the opera that turns it into an outright celebration of Cosi.
**** MESSIAEN, "Saint Francois d'Assise," Deutsche Grammophon. Four hours and nothing much happens in this trance-like opera. St. Francis (the superb Jose van Dam) sings. An Angel (the angelic Dawn Upshaw) sings. God is praised. Birds sing; they are praised. The music is complex yet transfixing if you give yourself to it. The production, recorded live at the Salzburg Festival in 1998 and expertly conducted by Kent Nagano, was originally created by Peter Sellars and was once promised by Los Angeles Opera. It never came. This is the next best thing.