THERE IS A SPECIAL timeliness for Washingtonians in the first release by HNH Records of Evanston, Illinois - heretofore known only as the importers and distributors of some interesting and beautifully produced recordings from England and Sweden. The new HNH label begins its career with a two-disc set in which Antal Dorati conducts the Stockholm Philharmonic in the Symphony No. 5 of Gustav Mahler (HNH 40033/84004).

Dorati has been conspicuously attentive to Mahler in his enormously productive years with the National Symphony Orchestra; he has conducted all the symphonies here except Nos. 7 and 8, and has introduced Nos. 3, 5, 6 and 9 into the NSO's repertory. This week he concludes his tenure as music director with a Mahler program which includes the orchestra's first performances of the unfinished Tenth Symphony as well as a repeat of the Fifth.

It is interesting to seek this work chosen for these significant concerts, which represent more of a summing-up than a farewell (since Dorati, to our great good fortune, will continue to five the NSO a specified portion of his time as principal guest conductor). The Fifth is far from being the most grandiose of Mahler's symphonies, but in many respects it is one of the most convincing, and surely one of nearest to perfection technically. It is, in any event, quite a showcase for the orchestra that can handle it, and its presentation in this context bespeaks Dorati's confidence in the orchestra he has built here.

The new recording followed more than a dozen performances of the work in a similar context. In 1973, after seven seasons as chief conductor of the Stockholm Philharmonic, Dorati made this same symphony the feature of a big European tour in which the continent was made aware of the stature his Swedish orchestra had attained.

The recorded performance speaks for itself in that respect. What we hear is a virtuoso orchestra dealing comfortably (but by no means casually!) with a virtuoso symphony. There are no weak sections, and the various section soloists are superb (particularly the horn in the privotal scherzo).

Interpretively, too, this is a performance in which themusic is allowed to speak for itself. There are no histrionic excesses, no overlay of emotion added to what Mahler wrote into his score, but neither is this a cold or reticent Fifth. Dorati's opinion seems to be that with Mahler, as with Ravel, if you simply pay attention to the composer's exceptionally precise instructions all the expressive, dramatic and coloristic effects really do take care of themselves.

To many listeners, the effectiveness of a performance of this work stands or falls with the conviction one feels in its shortest movement, the exquisite Adagietto for strings and harp. Bruno Walter and Willam Mengelberg, two of Mahler's direct disciples and most authoritative interpreters, took this movement quite briskly in their famous recordings, with an effect that was not at all rushed, but extremely poignant. Dorati's pace is not quite as fast as theirs, but is somewhat faster than any other recorded version, and here, too, the lightness, the transparency, the absolute absence of interpretive self-consciousness make this not only a convincing presentation, but a truly memorable one.

The Rondo-Finale, similarly free of gratuitous highlighting from one episode to the next, conveys a marvelous sense of cumulative momentum, with great reserves of power judiciously held in check until the exuberant chorale at the end. This is, in short, a deeply satisfying and highly competitive account of the Fifth - and it is not this set's only attraction.

The Symphony, of course, takes up only three sides; the fourth is given over to the Eight Barefoot Songs of Allan Pettersson, sung by the great Swedish baritone Erik Saeden (remembered especially for his magnificent recording of Ture Rangstroem's King Eric's Songs some 20 years ago.) He is still in fine voice - a singer whose extraordinary power of communication makes us forget we don't understand Swedish.

Dorati became an enthusiastic champion of Pettersson's music soon after taking up his duties in Stockholm, and has recorded two of his symphonies, one of which (no. 7) is dedicated to him. It was Dorati who orchestrated these songs in 1968, 25 years after Pettersson wrote the words and the original piano accompaniments - and what an imaginative job of orchestration it is! This cycle, a fascinating discovery in its own right, seems an especially happy choice for the final side in this set.

The recording, produced by James Mallinson, who has supervised Dorati's sessions with both the NSO and the Philharmonia Hungarica for London-Decca, is outstandingly good - rich in the most natural sense, and impeccably balanced; the engineer, Hakah Sjoegren, deserves more than a mention, while Robert Ludwig's skilful mastering and the absolutely silent surfaces contribute toward placing these discs among the finest domestic pressings I've heard. The gatefold container carries first-rate annotations by Jack Diether as well as bilingual texts for the songs. A most auspicious launching for the HNH label, and a distinguished release in every respect.