"In the Still of Night": Anna Netrebko, soprano; Daniel Barenboim, piano (Deutsche Grammophon)

This live recital from the 2009 Salzburg Festival comes to the rescue in many ways: There's too little Russian song available on mainstream recording labels; pianist/conductor Daniel Barenboim ought to be heard more often in lieder recitals, and Anna Netrebko sounds far happier in lyric soprano repertoire than in coloratura music. Not only is she in excellent voice, but she has a more immediate than usual relationship with the text because she's singing in her native language. In fact, the Tchaikovsky songs are among the best since Galina Vishnevskaya's recordings from the 1970s -- and on strictly vocal terms are more opulent.

The puzzling element is the inclusion of 11 Rimsky-Korsakov songs, which are often insubstantial and often don't tap into Netrebko's dramatic instincts.

DAVID PATRICK STEARNS, Philadelphia Inquirer

Handel: "Giulio Cesare"; Kristina Hammarstrom, Emanuela Galli and others; Orchestra of Patras, conducted by George Petrou (MDG)

Distinguished Handel opera recordings have been arriving from an unlikely source -- the early-music community in Greece -- while also presenting a singular, potentially controversial, but ultimately gratifying view of the composer.

Reflecting neither the clean, well-schooled view that has come out of England nor the old-school romantic approach that died out in the 1970s, this "Giulio Cesare" takes a red-blooded stance that perfectly suits the music and subject matter. The casting favors female mezzos in male roles (rather than countertenors), with Hammarstrom singing the title role in ways that convey masculinity through a masterful command of the music. As Cleopatra, Galli isn't a convincing seductress (her high notes are a strain), although her despair in later scenes is a penetrating compensation. All voices have great individual personalities, spurred on by conductor Petrou. Orchestral playing and sound quality are first-class.

DAVID PATRICK STEARNS, Philadelphia Inquirer