COMPACT DISCS / Play it again, Sebastian: Our 'Double Play' duo of Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson check their cards for the year's best compact disc releases

The year's sexiest sounds were the saintliest. Michael Tilson Thomas pulled off a minor miracle, reuniting Claude Debussy with the purple poetry of Gabriele D'Annunzio and seducing us with the agony and the ecstasy. Le Martyre de Saint Sebastian (Sony SK 48240) ought to be toe-curling: 'whoever wounds me most deeply / loves me the most', cries the saint, moaning 'Encore] Encore]' as the arrows strike home. Derek Jarman, where are you now?

But Debussy's extraordinary music - elusive, abstract, aromatic - is somehow born again amidst these fragrant, high-flown texts, and this recording (the performance is given by the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus with a ravishing 'vox coelestis' in Sylvia McNair) achieves transfixing levels of nuance and refinement.

And so to the Big Apple - and I'm not talking Garden of Eden. In 1944, Leonard Bernstein arrived on Broadway - and the footwork was fancy. The real hero of his first show, On the Town (DG 437 516-2), is the town itself - and it struts and swaggers and bustles and broods in dance music of a sassiness and sophistication unprecedented in American musical theatre. Trading the sackcloth and ashes of martyrdom for white tails and tap shoes, Michael Tilson Thomas duly effects the dazzling transformation of London Symphony Orchestra into Broadway pit band, and there's not a Kiwi soprano or Spanish tenor in earshot.

It could have been a hat trick for Tilson Thomas this year. The itchy percussion and airy pampas-blasted melodies of Tangazo (Argo 436 737-2) will have won many new friends, myself included, for the music of Latin America: the likes of Chavez, Ginastera, and the Tango King himself, Astor Piazzolla. But we've already waited too long and patiently for a fine digital recording of Britten's ill-fated Coronation opera Gloriana (Argo 440 213-2). So perhaps this unjustly neglected score can at last come in from the cold.

Sir Charles Mackerras is a worthy champion, savouring its unerring theatricality, skilfully balancing the private emotions and public pomp. And as Josephine Barstow's heart- broken Elizabeth poignantly voices her regrets in the closing scene, her last words mingling with the half-remembered strains of Essex's lute song, the thought occurs that this could be among only a handful of recordings that our most influential singing actress will leave to posterity. At least it is, in every sense, a crowning achievement.

So too, Anne Sofie van Otter's wonderful recital of Grieg Songs (DG 437 521-2) - self-evidently the solo vocal record of the year. Thomas Hampson later came through with a significant challenge, offering by turns illuminating and penetrating readings of Mahler's Knaben Wunderhorn songs in their original piano versions. But in Grieg's anniversary year, a timely reminder of his considerable prowess as a songsmith was especially welcome. Von Otter is a singer of many colours and inflections. Just the sound of the words can render the full emotional story, before you have so much as glanced at a translation.

Stephen Kovacevich made my list for Brahms last year. This year it's Beethoven - urgent, secretive, ethereal, explosive, inspirational Beethoven (EMI CDC 7 64896 2). A limpid Op 78, an orchestral 'Waldstein', an Op 110 in which Kovacevich, like Beethoven, seems to be surprising even himself. They don't sound like studio recordings. Performances this special should not, in a sense, be repeatable. Happily, they are.

Finally, a man called Poul Ruders. He is Denmark's leading composer; he is prophet, visionary, musical terrorist in one. He writes scores that are too hot to handle. Dominating a stunning new disc of his music from the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Leif Segerstam (Chandos CHAN 9179) is a quite remarkable Symphony - a chronicle for our times. It's about dehumanisation, the death of innocence; it's a Christmas message with menaces.

Ruders is the kind of composer who can still make a vestal flame of a solo violin without it sounding like a cliche. His orchestrations hallucinate and illuminate in amazing ways. Hear him. Now. ES

Edward Seckerson and I clashed on only one of my chosen six - Dream of Gerontius, as interpreted by Vernon Handley on EMI Eminence (5 65019 2). Agreed, there have been fierier, more operatic performances on record, but the orchestral sound, well caught by the recording, is gorgeous, especially in the quietest, most intimate moments. And that matches Handley's approach, most concentrated in emotional close-ups like Gerontius's 'And I fain would sleep' - where Anthony Rolfe Johnson's pianissimo is almost painfully beautiful. There's grandeur here too and, in Part II, the soul's journey, a sense of calm. An 'alternative' viewpoint maybe, but for me a very convincing one.

No doubts about Colin Davis's response to Humperdinck's great fairy-tale opera, Hansel and Gretel (Philips 438 013 2). Ann Murray and Edita Gruberova are utterly convincing as child hero and heroine and all the supporting roles are strong - especially Christa Ludwig's Witch. Davis and the Dresden Staatskapelle are lovingly attentive to this marvellously fertile score, and there isn't a hint of archness in the whole thing. Those with (understandable) allergies to The Little Sweep or Amahl and the Night Visitors need have no fear.

I thought for a moment about including another Davis disc - his splendidly unreconstructed Beethoven Eroica (also Philips), and that would have led naturally to Charles Mackerras's style-conscious Beethoven Five and Seven (Eminence again). But instead I've chosen two discs of modern symphonies. Robert Simpson's Second and Fourth make a stunning coupling in Vernon Handley's Hyperion versions (CDA 66505). How could the finale of the Fourth (1972) manage to be so uplifting at a time when the composer's reputation was at an all-time low? There's defiance for you. I can't think of a better introduction to Simpson than this searching, but irresistibly positive work.

Poul Ruders' Symphony, Himmelhoch jauchzend zum Tode betrubt ('Rejoicing to the heavens, cast down to death'), is a very different proposition. It is, as its subtitle suggests, an emotional roller-coaster of a work. It can be desperately black but the writing is brilliantly imaginative and bursting with energy, and there are moments of haunting tenderness. Performance and recording (Chandos CHAN 9179) get the tone just right, and the other three works, shorter and less ambitious as they are, also turn out to be very repeatable. Leif Segerstam conducts.

Utter contrast next - or is it? On the face of it, Schubert's Impromptus and Moments Musicaux are miniatures, but the range of feeling, character and colour they suggest is huge, each piece a world in itself - or at least that's how they emerge in Andras Schiff's Decca recordings (430 425 2). Compared to some, Schiff may seem restrained, but that's because he is able to suggest with a touch of rubato or a tiny dynamic inflexion what others can only do in blatant Lisztian fortissimos. The slighter pieces, Hungarian Melody and six German Dances, are hardly less exquisite.

The opening impression from the Corydon Singers' 21st Anniversary disc (Hyperion CDA 66650) - Bruckner's Te Deum and Mass in D minor - is of something granite- like and calmly imposing; the old image of the 'cathedral in sound' won't be dismissed. Then the soloists enter and all is angelic warmth. Having given what is certainly one of the best Te Deums on record, Matthew Best shows what a strikingly good piece the early Mass in D minor is - Wagner rubbing shoulders with Schubert, Haydn and Mozart and managing to get on. A glowing culmination to another outstanding Hyperion project. SJ

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