CLASSICAL RECORDINGS We live in an age when, thanks to recordings, broadcast media and jet-set conductors, orchestras have begun to sound more and more alike. But, at least ideally, there are still significant differences among the orchestras of France, Russia and Central Europe (Germany, Austria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia). The orchestral styles of Russia and France have strong affinities, as do those of Central Europe, and the history of American orchestras can be summed up largely as a struggle between the Central Powers and the Franco-Russian alliance.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the sound (and often the chief spoken language) of American orchestras was German. Since World War I, when German culture suffered a severe public relations setback in this country, our musical life has made much more room for French and Russian influences.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra is a prime example. Before World War I, it was solidly Germanic under conductor Carl Muck, who unwisely refused to conduct the Star-Spangled Banner, was arrested -- unjustly -- on suspicion of espionage and held without trial until after the war. Beginning in 1919, a radical change in the orchestra's orientation was begun by Pierre Monteux and consolidated by Serge Koussevitzky and Charles Munch, who together made the Boston Symphony the finest French orchestra in the world.

Today, orchestras in Montreal, Geneva, perhaps even Paris, have some claim to that title, and the Boston Symphony has moved in other directions under such music directors as Erich Leinsdorf and Seiji Ozawa, but the old tradition dies hard. Listen to the Boston Symphony's latest recording, Ravel's complete "Daphnis and Chloe" conducted by Bernard Haitink (Philips 426260-2) and you can hear an orchestra that is still, at least for this occasion, the greatest French orchestra in the world, in an extraordinary performance of the kind of music it was created to play.

In Washington, the Russo-French alliance has clearly taken control under the direction of Mstislav Rostropovich. Evidence can be heard in the National Symphony Orchestra's recordings of Russian music issued on the French Erato label -- most recently, Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7 ("Leningrad") (Erato 2292-45414-2) and a complete "Boris Godunov" in Mussorgsky's original orchestration (Erato 2292-45418-2; three CDs with libretto). Whether or not Rostropovich has formed the world's finest Russian orchestra in Washington (clearly a thing he has been trying to do), he comes closer to that goal each year.

These records may be taken as mementos of the NSO's passage into a new category -- from the top echelons of provincial orchestras to the entry level of world-class orchestras. Ten years ago, it would have been absurd or pretentious to compare the NSO with the Chicago Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra or the New York Philharmonic. Today, while it does not always fare well in such comparisons, they are clearly in order.

Thus, the NSO's Shostakovich Seventh, for all its clarity and power, occasionally falls short of the pure muscle displayed by the Chicago Symphony under the frenzied direction of Leonard Bernstein. Still, Rostropovich makes an eloquent case for the music of his old friend and mentor. This is a carefully thought out, structurally lucid and dramatically compelling performance of a work that, after a half-century, may be just coming into true perspective.

The NSO is not the only American orchestra venturing into Russian music. The Atlanta Symphony, which was rather eclectic and (of course) particularly strong in choral repertoire under Robert Shaw, has recorded Shostakovich's Fifth and Ninth symphonies under Yoel Levi in well-engineered performances (Telarc CD-80215) that make all the right gestures and statements but also fall short of Bernstein's eloquence. Another American orchestra, the St. Louis Symphony under Leonard Slatkin, does not have that problem in a superb recording of Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony (RCA 60145-2-RC), which calls for a different kind of eloquence and has no recorded competition from Bernstein.

In the new "Boris Godunov," one can see an aspect of Rostropovich that gets relatively little attention and always seems rather surprising in a musician of such vigorous personality. It would not be right to talk of "Rostropovich the accompanist"; he is always more than that. But Rostropovich the musical collaborator reaches levels of supportive and creative interaction, in operas and in concertos, that must make him a joy to work with. His "Boris" makes the orchestra a very real part of the total dramatic process, notable for the sensitivity and the theatrical vigor of its role-playing.

This "Boris" has a cast well deserving of Rostropovich's special care. Ruggero Raimondi's musicianship and penetrating vision of the role are impressive. Paul Plishka is not only musically superb, but makes the role of the monk Pimen more interesting than any other interpreter I have heard. Nicolai Gedda performs brilliantly in the small but crucial role of the fool, Kenneth Riegel is a superbly oily Shuisky, Vyacheslav Polozov is a good Dmitri and young Matthew Adam Fish is exactly right as the czar's son. The happiest surprise, though, is Galina Vishnevskaya, who had some vocal problems in the concert performance that preceded this recording session but managed to overcome them in the studio.

The real hero of this recording, however, is Modest Mussorgsky. At more than 3 1/2 hours, these three discs include all the music he composed for his various versions of "Boris," with none of the well-intended prettification that Rimsky-Korsakov gave the work after Mussorgsky's death. The recording speaks eloquently for Mussorgsky's simple, perhaps even crude, but powerful orchestration.

Still, most American orchestras are solidly in the Central European tradition, often under Central European conductors. In the Cleveland Orchestra, for example, Christoph von Dohnanyi (German-born of Hungarian ancestry) has revitalized the great heritage of the Hungarian George Szell. One of his best recent efforts is an outstanding set of the four Brahms symphonies, plus the Variations on a Theme by Haydn and the "Tragic" Overture (Teldec 244972-2 ZE, four CDs also available separately).

The Chicago Symphony, raised to a pinnacle of Central European style by Fritz Reiner (a Hungarian) in the last generation, has been kept there by another Hungarian, Sir Georg Solti. Where it will go under the direction of Daniel Barenboim, an Israeli born in Argentina who has been working in Paris since 1975, is uncertain. But Barenboim has worked long and hard to make the Orchestre de Paris play German music in a German style, his Beethoven is impeccable when he conducts the Berlin Philharmonic, and as a pianist he has just recorded a superb interpretation of Bach's "Goldberg" Variations -- hard-core Central European repertoire for sure (Erato 2292-45468-2).

The great Reiner tradition in Chicago is well-documented on compact discs from RCA -- for example, 60002-2-RG (Beethoven's First and Sixth symphonies) or 60388-2-RG (the Strauss "Symphonia Domestica" and "Death and Transfiguration"). Most American orchestras, while they may be particularly strong in one kind of repertoire, pride themselves on versatility. The Chicago Symphony shows this quality in a two-CD set, available in return for a $50 contribution to its development fund, titled "Guests in the House." It features the orchestra playing brilliantly under 10 guest conductors in a variety of styles -- French, German, Spanish, American, even English.

The Milwaukee Symphony, which is the primary performer on the Milwaukee-based Koss label, remains solidly Central European under Czech conductor Zdenek Macal (note his very solid reading of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony on Koss KC-1003). But it also recognizes a special responsibility to American music and fulfills some of that responsibility in a new collection of works by Lukas Foss ("Ode for Orchestra," "Song of Songs" and "With Music Strong") with the composer conducting (Koss KC-1004). This is powerful, inventive music that deserves preservation on records. So is the music of Walter Piston (the Second and Sixth symphonies and the Sinfonietta), which Gerard Schwarz has recorded with the Seattle Symphony and the New York Chamber Symphony on Delos DE 3074. But the realities of record marketing seldom allow American orchestras to record much American music.

David Zinman, music director of the Baltimore Symphony, is -- like Schwarz in Seattle and Slatkin in St. Louis -- one of the still-rare American conductors in charge of a major American orchestra. His work on records is outstanding, and it crosses easily the lines that divide French and/or Russian repertoire from that of Central Europe. I plan to celebrate Bastille Day next Saturday with his recording of the Berlioz arrangement of the "Marseillaise" (Telarc CD-80164). But he is equally impressive in symphonies of Schumann (Telarc CD-80230) or (with pianist Horacio Guttierez) the top-40 warhorses of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff (Telarc CD-80193). If the style wars among American orchestras ever reach a peaceful conclusion, it will probably be through the appointment to key positions of more native American conductors who feel equally at home in all the world's classical idioms.