Chamber orchestras are usually modest little things, sometimes as few as a dozen players and seldom more than 40. They tend to name themselves after relatively small entities: New York's 92nd Street "Y," for example, or London's Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields -- sometimes a city like St. Paul, Los Angeles or Lausanne; seldom anything much larger, though there is a Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

Now, along comes the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, named for a whole continent and making its Washington debut (part of its first American tour) Saturday night at the Kennedy Center. Chamber orchestras usually focus their repertoire on the Baroque period, with a few pieces from the 20th century. The Chamber Orchestra of Europe, with Claudio Abbado conducting and Elizabeth Connell as soprano soloist, has scheduled no Baroque music for its Washington program; otherwise, it covers the whole orchestral spectrum: serenades by Mozart and Brahms, vocal music by Beethoven and Mahler and a contemporary work by Gyo rgy Ligeti: "Ramifications," which exists in versions for full string orchestra and for 12 players. Evidently, this is not one of your ordinary chamber orchestras.

The impression is confirmed by some of the group's new recordings. Two, conducted by Alexander Schneider, are from an English company, ASV (Academy Sound and Vision) and have some of the finest small-orchestra playing I have heard in a long time. The third, conducted by James Galway, is from RCA and may become a best-seller although, artistically, it is miles behind the others.

The records inform us, further, that this group plays with vitality and precision in a variety of styles. One (ASV COE 803) was made in concert last July, and it conveys the sense of spontaneity that comes from live performance without sacrificing the high technical standards available in a studio recording. It is a showcase for some of the orchestra's principal players, with three 18th-century works in concerto form featuring multiple soloists: Mozart's "Sinfonia Concertante" for winds in E-flat, K. 297b; Bach's Concerto in C Minor for violin and oboe (reconstructed from the concerto for two harpsichords, BWV 1060) and Vivaldi's "San Lorenzo" Concerto for two violins and cello. Schneider also conducts excellent performances of the two Dvorak serenades, Op. 22 and Op. 44, on ASV COE 801, a studio recording in which the small orchestra produces effortlessly the rich sound textures of late Romanticism.

On RCA HRC1-5364, just in time for the Handel tercentennial, we have a sampling of Handelian top-40 material: the first "Water Music" Suite, the "Royal Fireworks" music and the "Entry of the Queen of Sheba" from "Solomon." The playing is generally excellent; the conducting is not. Galway often chooses erratic tempos (generally too fast) and romanticizes the phrasing. It is a kind of Handel interpretation that went out of style a generation ago. But it will probably be enjoyed by those attracted by the sleeve: a picture of Galway superimposed on a scene of water and fireworks with his name in letters four times the size of the orchestra's.

Those who are stricken with fear at the name of Ligeti on the orchestra's program should calm themselves. True, he is one of the more "avant" members of the avant-garde of the 1960s and '70s, which is rapidly becoming the rear guard of the '80s. True, he produced works that have been called (perhaps ominously) "sound sculptures," and his music often has what seems at first an impenetrable density of texture -- sometimes because it is written in many parts and sometimes because it uses microtones in its harmonies.

But he is one of the great originals of our time -- hardly a follower of any model since his early (and fine) String Quartet No. 1 (1953-54), which owes quite a bit to Bartok. He is also a meticulous artist, intent on creating works that will have impact on an audience rather than structures interesting only for their own intricacy. His music almost always sounds "strange," even to ears well versed in modern music, but its strangeness radiates a fascination foreign to the desiccated products of academic composition. "Ramifications" has that fascination in both of its editions, and in any case it lasts less than eight minutes.

A new album from the German company Wergo (WER 60095, five LPs with booklet) offers a fine retrospective view of most of Ligeti's major works, from the String Quartet No. 1 to the "San Francisco Polyphony" for orchestra, commissioned by Seiji Ozawa. It has music of many kinds: harpsichord, organ, electronic tape, a cappella chorus, virtuoso works for wind ensemble, music for voices and instruments, a monumental Requiem Mass for soloists, two choruses and orchestra, a cello concerto and a concerto for flute and oboe. Through all these varieties of sound and structure emerges a consistent personality of unshakable integrity, one that has grown constantly and searched diligently for fresh methods of communicating through music.

A curious impression that arises from listening to this music in the 1980s is that of Ligeti as a pre-Glass (or pre-Minimalist) composer. In a way, this is like calling Shakespeare "pre-Dryden," but it may be that the Minimalists have taught a new generation of listeners how to hear this music -- relax, free the mind of formal preconceptions and analytic preoccupations and simply let the music work directly on your awareness. What emerges is a rare and strange kind of beauty. Unlike many avant-garde composers of his generation (he is 62 this year), most of Ligeti's music has not yet begun to sound old-fashioned. It may be that some of it will.