Kenneth Gilbert's three-disc set of Rameau's harpsichord music was issued recently on the DG Archiv label, at about the same time Vanguard brought out the second and third discs in its own three-volume Rameau series with Trevor Pinnock, origninally recorded by CRD in England. Both of these sets are so fine that is is much easier to sort out the non-musical differences between them than to cite their respective points of musical superiority. The most conspicuous interpretive differences for the most part only serve to point up the richness and variety of this wonderful music.

In the Archive set (2710.020), Kenneth Gilbert performs on three splendid old instruments from the collection of the Paris Conservatoire, using his own recently completed edition fo the music. On Vanguard (VSD-71256, 71270, 71271) Trevor Pinnock similarly divides his six sides equally among three modern harpsichords modeled after specific 18th-century instruments. The Archiv sound is close-up and very full-bodied, in keeping with Gilbert's energetic, large-scale approach; while Vanguard's is somewhat drier and crisper, in keeping with Pinnock's somewhat more intimate approach.

That is not to suggest that Pinnock is wanting in vitality, or that Gilbert is not also deep inside the music. There are pieces in which Gilbert is gentler and Pinnock more demonic, but the overall impression is as noted above. The famous "Tambourin" in the 1724 collection (or, in its modern context, the Suite in E minor) is perhaps a little too hard-driven by Gilbert, while its charm and the variety of its coloring are more clearly illumined by Pinnock. The "Rigaudons" in the same sequence are more than appealing in Pinnock's hands, but irresistibly exhilarating in Gilbert's. In "LeRappel des oiseaux," it is Pinnock who is more driving and brilliant, Gilbert the more relaxed.

It is in the noble " gavotte with Variations" in the 1728 collection that we have the strongest argument for owning both versions, for here each performer sees the work so differently and yet so convincingly as to provide us with two sharply contrasting experiences of equal -- and exceptional -- value. Gilbert brings it off as a grand, festive, ceremonial gesture; Pinnock, taking Rameau a bit more literally in his choice of a slower tempo, glories in the structure of the piece and the understated yet striking emotional contrasts in the six variations.

The collector who can invest in both of these sets will not regret the expenditure. If forced to choose between them, it can hardly be overlooked the expenditure. If forced to choose between them, it can hardly be overlooked that the three Vanguard discs are priced $6 less than the Archiv set, and they carry another advantage in the form of Nicholas Anderson's exhaustive annotation -- far more than is offered in the Archiv set, with specific information on each of the respective pieces as well as copious background material. Since the Vanguards are available singly, a nice compromise solution might be to purchase the Archiv set and the one Vanguard disc that offers the most intriguing contrasts: That would be VSD-71256, which contains all the bestknown pieces from the 1724 and 1728 collections, in what have come to be known as the suites in A minor and E minor.

If economy is the prime consideration, the Musical Heritage Society offers a lower-priced set of this music played by Huguette Dreyfus (Mhs- 1414/1416). While her performances are eminently satifying in their own right, and she even throws in a tiny Menuet en rondeau (which figures in neither of the other sets), she does not show that extra measue of inspiration and/or imagination that we get in such abundance from both Gilbert and Pinnock. (Neither does Scott Ross, in his expensive four-disc Telefunken set.)

But MHS has come up with a real winner with none other than Gilbert in the fourth and concluding installment of his Couperin cycle, comprising "Ordres" Nos. 20-27 (MHS-4072/4075). Since Couperin's harpsichord works take up no fewer than 16 discs, we can be especially grateful that this material came out of MHS instead of a "fullprice" label; it is a distinguished series. The earlier segments are MHS-3128/3131, MHS 3181/3184 and MHS-3656/3659, each four-disc set conveniently containing the material Couparin grouped together to form one of his four Livrers de claveein."