TONIGHT AT Wolf Trap flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal will pack the crowds in as usual.

Rampal! SAy that name to a music lover and lips twitch, eyes light up as if blinded by the master's gold flute, and the luscious lilt of imagined pizzicatos dances around inner ears.

Say John Steele Ritter to music lovers, however, and draw a blank stare. But tonight Rampal and Ritter play together. Rampal's name is on the tickets and ads, and he will stride out onto stage big and glowing and throw himself into the music like a president working a crowd. Yes, Ritter, as unobtrusive as a Secret Service agent, is only accompanying at the keyboard.

And what is accompanying?

"The Bach sonatas we'll be doing at Wolf Trap," Ritter explains, "were originally written for organ solo. So my left hand will be playing the organ pedal part. My right hand will be playing the organ left hand. And the flute will play the organ right hand part."

Ignore the unassuming man at the piano if you want. But why give Bach's right hand ringing bravos and Bach's left hand and feet polite applause?

Recently Martin Goldsmith closed WETA radio's Classical Grooves program by playing the "Erlkonig" by Franz Schubert as originally written for singer and piano and then played a Liszt transcription for piano alone. Before signing off Goldsmith concluded that as fine as Lazar Berman's playing of the Lizst version might be, "I prefer the original as sung by Fischer-Dieskau."

No kudos at all for pianist Gerald Moore who rendered the triplets in the score that are so difficult even Schubert couldn't play them.

But since Schubert wrote songs, isn't the tune the important thing?

"The composer of a great song uses the piano part to paint pictures. He uses the piano part to evoke a mood," Moore says. "Schubert promoted accompaniment to equal partnership with the voice. And you can say all the great song writers since Schubert's time have made a duet between the voice and the piano.

"And an accompanist who sits down to play the accompaniment of any great song takes half the responsibility for the performance of it. Although when I say half the responsibility I don't mean for a moment that the accompanist succeeds in making off with half the fee!"

But anyone who has been to a vocal recital has noticed that while the singer stands alone, the piano player has the music propped up in front of him and often a page turner at his side. Yes, it is a crutch, but not for the accompanist.

"When I play I must forget the piano music and listen to the words," Joerg Demus explains. "Even Fischer-Dieskau makes mistakes. In New York this year he forgot two words in the same poem. It was one of Schubert's silliest songs so that's why he probably forgot. So I had to whisper the silly words over to him."

Granted, in the art song and in Bach, star and accompanist carry equal loads, but surely when the great Pavarotti sang a recital at the Met and what's-his-name was at the piano hammering out Donizetti tunes, hundreds of pianists could have handled it -- not just what's-his-name, you know, the thin fellow?

Apparently the big singers don't think so, because they all want what's-his-name, John Wustman, to play for them.

"I'll be touring with five power-houses this fall," Wustman says, "Pavarotti, Christa Ludwig, Nicolai Gedda, Elena Obraztova and Martti Talvela."

The mild-mannered prof from the University of Illinois sitting meekly at the piano will share the stage with one beefy star after another. (Believe me, those singers are big. In poundage and power, they match any Bullets five easy.)

"I guess they choose me for my personality and musicianship," Wustman says. "But while the accompanist might physically seem self-effacing at musically. Accompanying is exactly like conducting. The piano always begins, and must have the right tempo, the right mood, the right dynamics, the right color and a real grasp for musical texture."

So Wustman's task is not easy. With two hands and feet he must be a whole opera orchestra, and a conductor. He must support Pavarotti with a powerful sound and lead him as well -- and do it without being noticed.

Gerald Moore tells a story on the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham. A friend came backstage after an opera and exclaimed that everything about the music was wonderful except for one thing: Nobody could hear the singers.

"I know, I drowned them intentionally," Moore says Sir Thomas replied. "I drowned them in the interests of the public."

"Well," Moore commented, "we accompanists can't afford to be so public spirited."

"Sure, I get mad at some singers for what they do to the music," Ronald Tymus, a Washington accompanist who is a fixture at events like the regional Metropolitan Opera Auditions, admits. "But a good accompanist always helps the singer."

Meaning: Cover up the singer's mistakes if at all possible.

"One contestant a few years ago was singing the Doctor's aria from Barber's "Venessa'," Tymus says, "and he skipped a whole page of music. It only took me a second to realize what he was doing so I skipped ahead with him. The judge must not have noticed. The guy came in second."

The idea of letting the singer fall on his face never entered Tymus' mind.

"I've been accompanying vocalists since I was 8," Ritter explains about the morality of the accompanist covering up."Eventually it gets so that covering a mistake is an instantaneous thing. I do it without even thingking, like the mistake was written into the music."

And Wustman says that "I'm so used to hearing singers that I can often hear right away when they're in trouble, so then I can go faster or slower, or louder. And sometimes they don't even know I'm helping them."

There seems to be no limit to the loyalty of the accompanist. It goes to anyone with the guts to stand and face an audience and sing.

"I think every musician will admit that he wants to sing!" Tymus says.

Wustman is not usually profligate with adjectives but listen to his admiration of singers: "I have tremendous compassion for them. They have such a great, great responsibility, and it is very, very difficult exposing themselves naked, as it were, to the audience. All other musicians have their backs to the audience or are slightly turned away. Only the singer faces the audience."

And don't believe for a moment that when the bravos ring out for Pavarotti that the quiet man at the keyboard avoids being caught up by the passion. Or, on rare occasions, the danger.

"I was with Obraztsova in Miami when the Jewish Defense League tried to disrupt the concert," Wustman recalls. "We didn't mind the honking horns. She had tremendous poise, and so did I. But it was a terrifying experience. We were in a very big hall, and we were just two people out there, two little human beings. What if somebody had shot at us?"

Two human beings? The episode has entered the lore of opera as the fiery Russian Mezzo's confrontation.In an article in Opera Review, Jay Derrickson recalled the concert and obzaztsova's quiet heroism, but not a word about John Wustman.

Don't accompanists get revenue sometimes? Does their selfless excellence ever outshine the flashing start they serve?

After a recent Marilyn Horne and Martin Katz recital at the Kennedy Center, the larger than life diva received her fans in the green room. Amid the gushing, someone asked where her accompanist, the diminutive Martin Katz, was.

"Oh, he had to hurry back to New York," the diva laughed. "He has a concert tomorrow afternoon. You see, he's really the important one."

And among those important ones, Gerald Moore is one of the most important. My oldest brother took me to my first lieder recital. He insisted the whole family go with him to Constitution Hall -- not so much to hear "the best baritone in the world," but to hear "the greatest accompanist ever that all the great singers use!" It was easy to see Fischer-Dieskau, but I made a special effort to crane my head to see Gerald Moore, the pudgy man at the keyboard. Yes, pudgy. When accompanists finally receive their due, they often put on weight, too.

Any collection of recorded recitals by the great singers of the past half-century will have Moore's name repeated on the album credits like one of the more insistent base lines of a Schubert song.

Schumann and Moore, Schoitz and Moore, Flagstad and Moore, De Los Angeles and Moore, Fischer-Dieskau and Moore, Schwartzkopf and Moore. Seraphim has one album of a dozen singers being accompanied each in turn by Gerald Moore. In fact, Seraphim has a record, "The Unashamed Accompanist," on which Gerald Moore, accompanied by his piano, wittily explains the art song and the plight of the accompanist.

Gerald Moore also wrote three books on his craft and life, and they illustrate why books by accompanists are the gems of music literature.

The accompanist often explains the mysteries of technique, tradition ad personality so succinctly-and self-effacingly that the reader, well, almost forgets the accompanist is there. Happily I ran across "The Well-Tempered Accompanist" by Coenraad V. Bos is a used book store. Bos accompanied singers for 52 years. His book is only 162 pages long, but it runs the gamut from the laughing Brahms to dying Wagnerian sopranos.

Only in one episode does Bos himself almost leap out of the pages. He was attending a Town Hall recital at which an eminent singer kept pointedly refusing to share her applause with her accompanist, even though the songs performed depended for their effect largely on him. As the singer continued ignoring the man at the piano, Bos decided to take action.

"I asked for and received permission from my hostess [he was a guest in her box] to stand and loudly request that the singer include the pianist in the reception of the applause. In the nick of time I was saved from what I was about to do by the soloist finally bringing her accompanist out with her."

Bos wrote this ominous warning: "Such exclusion of the accompanist from participation in that acclaim which fans the flame of public performance may well prove disheartening to the most able assisting arttist, no matter how loyal and self-effacing."