Our holiday countdown officially begins today, with the first of six stories devoted to arts-and-entertainment-oriented gifts: books, CDs, videos and DVDs. Look for future installments...

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Our holiday countdown officially begins today, with the first of six stories devoted to arts-and-entertainment-oriented gifts: books, CDs, videos and DVDs. Look for future installments in this spot on consecutive Sundays through Dec. 19. This week, the overture: Gifts for the classical-music lover.

It’s that time again, gift buyers — our top selections for the best year-end and holiday classical CDs, plus some books that are well worth a gander. As always, we want to caution you against getting carried away as you listen to these wonderful CDs in your car, lest you be stopped and charged with a DWE (Driving While Enraptured — a violation characterized by complete unawareness of anything outside your auto).

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Because there’s so much great new stuff out, we’ll get right to it:


Best year-end classical CDs


Celestial Voices: “Voices of Light,”

Dawn Upshaw (Nonesuch)

Upshaw’s radiant soprano soars through this seraphic collection of Messiaen, Debussy, Golijov and Fauré, with pianist Gilbert Kalish.


Handel Arias,

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (Avie; at www.arkivmusic.com)

Taste and style are the hallmarks of this versatile mezzo-soprano, who can definitely Handel the baroque repertoire.



“Sempre Libera,”

Anna Netrebko (Deutsche Grammophon)

The hot new operatic soprano in a mostly coloratura aria collection that shows off her rich, full high notes.


“Winterreise,”

Ian Bostridge (tenor) and Leif Ove Andsnes (piano) (EMI Classics)

Utterly impassioned and convincing performance of Schubert’s great song cycle from two top-of-the-line interpreters.


“Amor,”

Natalie Dessay (Virgin Classics)

Stratospheric soprano scores with Strauss opera scenes and lieder, with Angelika Kirchschlager and Felicity Lott joining her in a dream-team “Rosenkavalier” finale.


“Cabaret Songs,”

William Bolcom & Joan Morris (Centaur)

Since 1973, this Northwest-native couple has completely revolutionized the art of the American song. This CD is from two live 2003 concerts of Bolcom’s (and Arnold Weinstein’s) wonderful cabaret songs, each a little world of its own.

•   •   •


Scintillating keyboards

Beethoven:
Murray Perahia and Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (Sony Classical)

Perahia’s own remarkable performance of the Op. 101 Sonata, plus his chamber-orchestra transcription of the Op. 127 String Quartet (performed here last year to great acclaim).


Mozart:

Leif Ove Andsnes (EMI Classics)

Fresh, spontaneous readings of Concertos Nos. 9 and 18 with the spirited Norwegian Chamber Orchestra.


Rachmaninoff:

Nikolai Lugansky, John Lill and Jorge Luis Prats (Brilliant Classics)

Rachmaninoff fans should love this two-disc set of the complete piano concertos and Paganini Rhapsody, with three fire-breathing piano soloists.


Martha Argerich and Mikhail Pletnev Play Prokofiev and Ravel

(Deutsche Grammophon)

Two brilliantly idiosyncratic pianists are on the same page for duo performances of two suites, Prokofiev’s “Cinderella” and Ravel’s “Mother Goose.”

•   •   •


Heavenly choirs

“Reincarnations,”
Dale Warland Singers (Gothic)

Sadly, America’s greatest chorus has disbanded following the retirement of choral genius Warland, but not without leaving behind this superb disc of 20th-century works of Barber, Fine and Ross Lee Finney. Listen and weep.


“How Sweet the Sound,”

Chanticleer (Warner)

The virtuoso male vocal ensemble Chanticleer sets the airwaves on fire with great traditional gospel music and spirituals.


“Peace,”

Handel and Haydn Society Chorus (Avie)

Gorgeous peace-themed choral works of several, including Rachmaninoff, Barber, Delius, Lauridsen — a perfect antidote to upcoming holiday madness.

•   •   •


Splendid strings

“Crossing Bridges,”
Mark O’Connor and Appalachia Waltz Trio (OMAC Records)

Virtuoso fiddler/composer O’Connor and two younger string players unite to recreate the original 1995 “Appalachia Waltz” repertoire and some very fine new stuff in the same tradition.



Biber: The Rosary Sonatas,”

Andrew Manze (Harmonia Mundi)

Exquisite contemplative violin sonatas, with harpsichordist Richard Egarr; this two-disc set is already getting top-10 listings and raves worldwide.

•   •   •


Holiday winners

“Messiah: The Dream Cast,”
various artists (Decca)

Highlights from the masterwork, with some of the world’s leading choruses and soloists taking turns: Bryn Terfel, Joan Sutherland, Kiri Te Kanawa, Arleen Auger and many more.


“Messiah,”

Robert Shaw Chorale & Orchestra (RCA Red Seal)

The first CD release of this 1966 Grammy-winning recording with Shaw at his best.


“A Christmas Present from Polyphony”

(Hyperion)

Beautiful carol collection of old and new carols in expert arrangements.


“Welcome All Wonders!”

Washington National Cathedral (Gothic)

Big, traditional Christmas extravaganza with brass, choir, organ and handbells.


“Best Loved Christmas Carols,”

King’s College Choir (EMI Classics)

Two discs of exquisite carols spanning several centuries, by the English choir and leading light of the “lessons and carols” tradition.


“The Gifts of Christmas,”

Heidi Grant Murphy (Koch International Classics)

Internationally renowned Northwest soprano lifts her effortless voice in 17 carols old and new, with pianist husband Kevin Murphy.


“Sleigh Ride,”

Boston Pops (617-266-1200 or 888-266-1200)

The Pops’ first self-produced CD has the Leroy Anderson title classic, the “Hallelujah” Chorus and lots more.


“Merry Christmas,”

Vienna Choir Boys (Koch International Classics)

Those little angels sing traditional international carols and, of course, “Stille Nacht.”

•   •   •


Books of musical note



“The World of Music According to Starker,”
Janos Starker (Indiana University Press, $29.95 with bonus CD)

Wisdom, plain speaking and a wholly fascinating life story, from this great aristocrat of the cello. (A double-disc set of his Bach, recorded 1963-65, has just been released on the Mercury label.)


“New York Times Essential Library of Opera”; “New York Times Essential Library of Classical Music”

(Times Books, $17 each)

Two excellent and comprehensive books by Anthony Tommasini and Allan Kozinn, respectively — two eminent critics who outline the 100 most important works in each area and salute the best recordings.


“The Inner Voice: The Making of a Singer,”

Renée Fleming (Viking, $24.95)

The most intelligent and valuable singer’s memoir to come along in a long time, this one’s a must for opera fans and especially aspiring singers. Honest, detailed and smart.


“The King and I,”

Herbert Breslin and Anne Midgette (Doubleday, $25.95)

A guilty pleasure for those who want to read the dish and the dirt on super-tenor Luciano Pavarotti, told by his long-suffering manager.

Melinda Bargreen: mbargreen@seattletimes.com