Charles Dutoit is not exactly unfamiliar in Washington; he has made a strong impression here as a guest conductor both with the National Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra. But on Saturday night he will be making his Washington debut with his own orchestra, L'Orchestre symphonique de Montreal.

It is their first joint appearance, but they do not exactly come to Washington as strangers. The Montreal orchestra is arguably the hottest on records, able to display in its advertising such accolades as " . . . the finest French orchestra today . . ." from such opinion leaders as the British magazine Gramophone.

Dutoit, contacted by phone at his home in Montreal, has a more vivid but no less enthusiastic description of his orchestra. "It is a very young orchestra," he says in the tones of a connoisseur, "a good vintage, like a 1982 Bordeaux, but it must mature. It is still young and jumpy."

He has several explanations for the orchestra's success on records, which is beginning to be reflected in international tours (four weeks in Europe next year, followed by a trip to Japan). A primary ingredient, he believes, is digital recording. "We are the only orchestra so far that has never done an analog record," he says. "Our first recording was digital, and all have been released immediately on compact discs. We started right at the beginning of the digital era, and our first recording, 'Daphnis et Chloe,' soon became a demonstration record because there were very few at the time. That is luck."

He also feels that he was lucky in persuading his recording company, London/Decca, to record his orchestra in Montreal after he had worked for them with other orchestras in other cities. "They said, 'Montreal doesn't mean anything to us or to the business.' But now, Montreal means something."

A third piece of luck was finding "a fantastic church, St. Eustache, to record in; it is one of the best recording locations in North America . . . the definition I want to give the sound can blossom there."

Dutoit finds the CD medium "specially suited to the French repertoire. The sound breathes much more, and you have a broader spectrum of colors," he says. "It picks up whatever the orchestra can play and the response of the hall." The texture of French music, he says, is "more colorful" than most music in the Germanic repertoire, which he conducts regularly in Montreal but does not record. With a few exceptions like Gustav Mahler, he says, Germanic music has "a big, brown, central cell; the texture of French music is much more delicate, like the modern French cuisine -- not too much cholesterol in it."

Strategy has worked hand in hand with luck in building an international audience for the Montreal orchestra. The repertoire recorded for London/Decca has been focused mainly on the Russian-French classical top 40: bright-sounding, vigorous music ideally suited to a "jumpy" young orchestra and, by no coincidence, attractive to a large international audience.

Part of the plan, in the long run, is for Dutoit to duplicate in digital recording the repertoire performed for London Records a generation ago by his mentor, Ernest Ansermet, with L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Meanwhile, for Erato, he is recording (with French orchestras) more of the hard-core French repertoire: complete cycles of such composers as Honegger and Roussel, who are "not very commercial" on the international market but well suited to a French company.

"Record companies tend to be very careful today," says Dutoit. "In order to keep our contract, our recordings must be successful artistically and commercially . . . It costs three times as much to produce one program in three different packages, compact disc, LP and tape cassette. But the LP is fading and the CD is becoming the standard."

As a conductor, Dutoit says, he tries to make his orchestra versatile -- able to adapt to a variety of styles rather than play everything in the same style. He has also "worked very hard on a very subtle kind of balance," he says, "not the general thing that one thinks of -- is the brass or the timpani too loud? These are general aspects. But there is also a balance within chords; if you have only a few woodwinds, for example, they must balance the whole body of strings. If one instrument is too loud or too soft, the chord will not sound well. Also, one must be careful of intonation, so that the harmonies will blend as well as possible."

Dutoit's latest recordings with the Montreal orchestra on London compact discs confirm his observations. The lightness and clarity of digital sound is, in fact, ideal for this repertoire. The St. Eustache acoustics have a nice sense of ambiance, which does not interfere at all with clarity of texture and subtly enhances the variety of instrumental colors.

The records are listed and briefly discussed below. In such often-recorded repertoire, it is a waste of time to look for one "best" recording, but these all have a kind of charm that seems as durable as the compact disc medium itself. They can be recommended without hesitation to anyone interested in the music who is also looking for first-class sound.

Stravinsky: Le Sacre du Printemps; Symphonies of Wind Instruments (London CD 414 202-2). Who would have thought, when the audience was tearing up its seats and throwing them at the stage at the first performance, that "The Rite of Spring" would become one of the most popular works in the modern repertoire? It has happened, and performances with the precision and carefully controlled energy of this one are a primary reason. The Symphonies of Wind Instruments provide a neat contrast and make the disc more generous than most of the 27 competitors listed in the latest Schwann catalogue.

Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique (London CD 414 203-2). In this music, one can hear modern orchestration being born; the roots of the new, bright, open sound cultivated by composers as diverse as Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Debussy and Honegger, Americanized by Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson and internationalized by Stravinsky. The performance is bright, alert and stylistically right on target.

Ravel: Bolero; Alborada del gracioso; Rapsodie Espagnole; La Valse. (London CD 410 010-2). This record contains various adaptations of the sound Berlioz launched, used for a variety of contrasting purposes. The Bolero is an emphatic statement, compulsively repeated; "La Valse," a collection of half-hints and veiled suggestion; the "Rapsodie" and "Alborada," evocations of exotic landscapes and customs (which also make virtuoso performance demands). For each of their contrasting assignments here, Dutoit and his orchestra find the right style and play at an impressive technical level.

Respighi: Pines of Rome; Fountains of Rome; Feste Romane (London CD 410 145-2). This departs from the French repertoire, but not very far; Respighi had a knack for making an orchestra sound good, and Dutoit and his orchestra have a comparable knack for exploiting this kind of opportunity.

Franz von Suppe': Overtures: Light Cavalry; Fatinitza; Morning, Noon and Night in Vienna; Jolly Robbers; Beautiful Galatea; Poet and Peasant; Queen of Spades (London CD 414 408-2). Not all of these overtures are as popular as "Light Cavalry" or "Poet and Peasant," or as frequently heard on records. But those who like one Suppe' overture are likely to enjoy them all, taken in properly measured doses.