Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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Len Mullenger:

The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs (1999) By Ivan March, Edward Greenfield and Robert Layton Paperback - 1600 pages (November 1999) Penguin Books; ISBN: 0140513795  £19.99 (Amazon UK £13.60)

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The latest version of this indispensable publication is subtitled “The Guide to Excellence in Recorded Classical Music”. In the forward the author’s remark that the current survey gathers together the very finest CDs issued over the last sixteen years. They have survived in the catalogue because their excellence is recognised; if deleted it is unusual for them to remain outside the catalogue for very long. They also consider that the majority of the very best discs are at premium price and are worth it — this is a view that perhaps not every record collector will hold.

Under the editorship of Ivan March, this series of books started as the Stereo Guide in the early days of stereo records. The original team included Edward Greenfield and Dennis Stevens, then Robert Layton joined; later Dennis Stevens had to give up. When the early versions were published, the situation regarding the issue of classical recordings was reasonably stable. Nearly all were issued by a handful of major record companies (EMI, DGG, Decca, Philips, CBS, RCA) alongside a relatively small number of independent companies. The CD era, after a slow beginning, brought a massive expansion of sales as the majority of collectors changed their LP collections to the CD format, this coincided with a general increase in interest in classical music and also increased prosperity. This early success of the new medium was dominated by the major companies who were also able to sell massive numbers of re-issues of older tracks which in many cases sounded much better than the original LP and were comparable in sound quality to new issues. A number of independent companies, notably Chandos and Hyperion, were very successful in choosing imaginative repertoire combined with high quality of recordings and they continue to be successful at full price.

However the economic downturn in the early nineties also led to a catastrophic downturn in influence of the major companies in the classical field. Traditionally these companies had relied upon emphasis on artists rather than repertoire for their sales but this policy was no longer successful as few collectors were interested in replacing their CDs of artists like Karajan and Beecham with modern artists — especially at a premium price. The other great success story was Naxos. This company originally came to fame when it sold CDs at less than a fiver in stores such as Woolworth. At first, their recordings used mainly unknown eastern European orchestras with conductors with unpronounceable names. Increasingly however, Naxos expanded both their repertoire and range of artists, their recordings also improved. Now Naxos dominates the shelves of the classical section of most record shops and increasingly people are unwilling to pay two or three times as much for CDs which often are seen as being only marginally better.

This new Penguin Guide thus serves as an invaluable review of the work of the record majors which often still comprise the best of the standard repertoire and will not readily go out of date. Companies like Hyperion (e.g. with their excellent romantic piano concerto series) and Chandos (e.g. with their Opera in English series) have little or no competition in their chosen new repertoire although Naxos are now extending their recordings more widely than would have predicted a few years ago. When choosing a recording, the Penguin Guide is always my first step and over the years the authors have gained a well deserved reputation for consistency and excellence. It will be very rare for you to be disappointed with recordings praised by them even though inevitably personal taste will not always coincide with all the judgements. The one problem which can arise is a result of the policy of concentrating on excellence — when a particular available recording is not reviewed, the reader does not know whether it is not there because of an oversight or because it was thought to be so poor as not to warrant a review (however this is seldom a serious problem in practice).

The authors continue to award one of their now famous Rosettes to a limited number of recordings. A Rosette is a quite arbitrary compliment by a member of the reviewing team to a performance which seems very special or illuminating. Many have been awarded to very well known indisputably special performances. In a few cases however I do have reservations, for example the Rizzi version of Gounod's Faust is a fine modern recording - but is the conducting as good as Beecham's? The Guide is especially useful in its treatment of historical recordings. There has been an increased interest in re-issues of old recordings including many which go well back into the days of the 78. In addition to re-issues by the major companies, a number of small specialist enterprises (of which Dutton Laboraties is especially esteemed) are now producing historical recordings of a quality which can only be described as magical. This Guide is particularly helpful in putting these CDs into context alongside modern recordings rather than keeping them as a special category.

This Penguin Guide has been a massive undertaking, with 1637 pages of closely written material in a new double column format which allows the review of even more recordings than before. Not everything is included — this would be impossible. But the judgements are good, the writing clear and the information reliable and accurate. This is a ‘must have’ for any serious collector of classical recordings.


Arthur Baker

In a publication of this size and complexity one might expect some errors. It is particularly unfortunate that this issue lists the Première recording of Ruth Gipps 2nd Symphony coupled with Arthur Butterworth's First symphony, ClassicO CLASSCD 274 and in both occurrences the composer has been listed as Gibbs. see CD review.

Len Mullenger


Arthur Baker

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