HANLON: Cumulus Nimbus. FENNELLY: Fantasy Variations. SCHULLER:O Farbenspiel. Louisville Orchestra, Gunther Schuller, Lawrence Leighton Smith and Gerhardt Zimmermann conducting. First Edition LCD-003 .

BARBER: Die Natali, Op. 37; Prayers of Kierkegaard, Op. 30. CRESTON: Corinthians: XIII, Op. 82. TOCH: Jeptha. Gloria Capone, soprano; Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Chorus, Louisville Orchestra, Jorge Mester and Robert Whitney conducting. Albany TROY-021-2 .

HARRIS: When Johnny Comes Marching Home; Epilogue to Profiles in Courage: JFK. SCHUMAN: Prayer in the Time of War; Symphony No. 4. BECKER: Symphonia Brevis. Louisville Orchestra, Jorge Mester and Robert Whitney conducting. Albany TROY-027-2 .

These are the first Louisville CDs to reach me - an astonishing delay from an orchestra, and record company, that more than any other has deliberately positioned itself on the cutting edge of recorded music.

Founded in 1954, the orchestra's First Edition label has from its inception attempted to bring us just that - the first and, in too many cases, still the only recordings of pieces by important 20th century composers.

Occasionally that mission has broadened to include the 19th century (e.g., a previously unrecorded Bruch symphony) or the first stereo recordings of certain works, such as Menotti's "The Telephone" or the above-listed "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," which Roy Harris designed to fit on the two sides of a 78-rpm record. But for the most part, conductor Robert Whitney and his successors have remained true to the original Louisville credo, and it is heartening to see some of the best of their earlier efforts find their way to CD via Albany's "First Edition Encores" series, the latest installments in which are listed above.

If I give pride of place to the CD containing Barber's "Die Natali - Chorale Preludes for Christmas," it is only partly because of the holiday season. Because for all its appeal, this 18-minute fantasia can hardly be called one of Barber's major achievements. Commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and premiered by them on Dec. 22, 1960, it strings together a variety of carols in mostly neoclassical fashion, ranging from "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" as a three-voice canon to a highly Stravinskian "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen." Best, I think, is the clever pizzicato reprise of "Emmanuel" a la the third movement of the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony.

The other Samuel Barber piece included here, however, seems to me a genuine masterpiece, namely his "Prayers of Kierkegaard," completed in 1954. From its quasi-Oriental, modal opening through its Holstian third section ("Father in Heaven") and beyond, this is a work of extraordinary inventiveness and grandeur, its polytonality elevated by a real devotional fervor. As with most of these recouplings, moreover, the digital transfer further clarifies what one hears on the original LP without sacrificing anything in the way of impact.

Next to this, the appended Toch and Creston essays run a distinct second, but are still worth hearing, the first for its Scriabinesque drama (it is in fact the composer's Fifth Symphony) and the second for its unaccustomed lushness and radiance. Here, however, it is without the spoken introduction that accompanied the LP edition.

I can also recommend the CD containing the Schuman and Harris pieces - a logical coupling of student and teacher - together with the "Symphonia Brevis" (or Symphony No. 4) of the little-heard John Becker, an almost Ivesian indictment of war. At least that is the feeling imparted almost equally by the mockingly energetic first movement and the solemn intervals and straining dissonances of the second.

On the other side of the military spectrum comes Harris' "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," moodier and more ambivalent than Morton Gould's later treatment of the same tune in his "American Salute" but still on the patriotic side. Ditto his atmospheric memorial to JFK, commissioned in 1964 by BMI.

That same combination of ruggedness and grandeur can be heard in Schuman's Symphony No. 4 - a less imposing but still involving followup to his Symphony No. 3 - and the elegiac "Prayer in the Time of War," written in 1943. At times in the symphony I wish the microphones had not picked up every click of the clarinet keys, but to my knowledge these are the only recordings ever of these pieces and frankly we could have done worse.

That is also the case with the three new First Edition releases listed above. Even with some of the weaker pieces, readings are never less than professional, especially under guest conductor Gerhardt Zimmermann, who again demonstrates his ability to draw the best from an orchestra.

Yet it is often the Smith-led performances that make the strongest impression, largely because of the strength of the music. Thus on LCD-002 it is the Hindemith Piano Concerto and Zwilich symphony that are the standouts, as opposed to the modernistic cliches of the thankfully brief Lawhead opus.

Dating from 1945, the Hindemith is in fact one of his most enjoyable scores, his usual German severity being lightened by almost Ravelian instrumental textures, capped by a "Symphonic Metamorphosis"-type finale. It is given, moreover, a wonderfully lucid reading by Luvisi and the orchestra, fanciful in the right spots but still basically uncluttered, with a fair amount of atmosphere and wit. And although "enjoyable" is not a word I would readily apply to Zwilich's music, her Symphony No. 2 seems to me an improvement on her Symphony No. 1, its ostinato-laden momentum peaking in a slow movement of almost wrenching power.

The unsettled quality of Canadian-born Sidney Hodkinson's Sinfonia Concertante, on LCD-001, is likewise one of its most striking qualities, from the Nielsen-cum-Janacek-like dance rhythms of the opening movement to the jazzier, more obviously American melange of polkas and hoedowns that make up the finale, with its delicious string-bass slide toward the end.

After that come Wilfred Josephs' Variations on a Theme of Beethoven (from the Op. 49/2 Piano Sonata), with its fascinating semiclassical scoring, and Karl Korte's Symphony No. 3, an attention-grabbing essay that, for all its skill, I find easier to admire than to love.

A taut, neoclassic quality also distinguishes Kevin Hanlon's "Cumulus Nimbus" (which, he acknowledges, is meteorologically a misnomer), from its almost serialistic beginnings to the controlled rhythms of its agitated, "Medea"-like central pages. And although Brian Fennelly's "Fantasy Variations" begins in broader, even more dissonant fashion, the strength of the writing frequently yields to an almost chamberlike sound in the middle variations.

That leaves us with Gunther Schuller's "Farbenspiel" ("Colorplay"), the third of his "concertos for orchestra." A more depersonalized work than either of the above, it is nonetheless artfully constructed, its misterioso opening giving way to an expert interweaving of instrumental choirs (particularly in the woodwinds), a middle movement of almost "Quiet City"-like loneliness and a finale whose faintly twittering waves of sound ultimately expire beneath the surface.

It may not be the greatest work of the 20th century, but it certainly isn't the worst. And, as with most of the Louisvilles, it's well suited to cleaning out one's ears before they plunge back into the music of the past. Or, hopefully via this series, the future.