This Guide to the classical catalogue is the latest
in a generation of guides that stretches way back to the era of the
LP - to the mid-1970s and earlier.
The present volume is limp-bound on very low glare,
off-white, matte surfaced paper. The font is of a reasonable size though
smallish and very sharply defined. It could perhaps have been produced
in a darker black. This one tends towards a slaty grey rather than a
sharp black. It is not, however, difficult to read and the characters
show no sign of 'bleed'. Reviews are presented in two columns per page.
The coverage is breathtakingly wide-ranging. At an
average of say six reviews per page and with 1566 review pages makes
circa 10,000 CDs or sets reviewed. Composer coverage is, in general,
Recommendations are shown in the form of a star system
where the CD is rated on the basis of three starts being an outstanding
performance and recording in every way. A rosette is an individual compliment
by a member of the reviewing team. Each review also indicates the price
bracket for the disc by reference to premium, mid, bargain or super
As with any guide, this one is necessarily subjective
and idiosyncratic. Half of the pleasure for the reader is disagreeing
with judgements made by others and expressing outrage when favourite
recordings are omitted.
For those looking for something a little out of the
way there are plenty of trouvailles. Try the Sousa entry which is triumphantly
open-minded selecting two collections of marches - one of modern recordings
(on Walking Frog Records - www.walkingfrog.com) and the other the Sousa
marches recorded during the period 1897-1930 (on Peter Christ's Crystal
label www.crystalrecords.com). Bernard Stevens' two Meridian discs are
there as are Braunfels on Decca, the Schoeck violin sonatas on a wonderful
Guild CD (doomed to two stars because it was felt to be too forwardly
recorded), Hertel and Herzogenberg, Maurice Emmanuel (Continuum), Damase,
Beamish, Mundy, Rathaus, Rott, Rouse, Tjeknavorian, Trimble and Truscott,
Voormolen and Vorisek, Whitlock and Ziehrer.
No book can cover every single disc and space limitations
have already resulted in some compression. Some reviews have already
been radically pared down - see those for the Thomson series of Bax
symphonies on Chandos.
You will quickly come up with your own list of omissions
as you purr and snarl your way through this book. It is a pity that
the Goossens discs did not include Handley's ABC recording of the First
Symphony. Regrettably there is no sign of the significant and extremely
enjoyable Strauss-Portusom series which includes the complete symphonic
cycles of Freitas Branco and Joly Braga Santos.
The reviewing style is (thankfully) non-technical.
We are not troubled with harmony, key changes and the like. The writing
is vivid and colourful - the essence of communicative writing to a receptive
and intelligent audience. The authors clearly work on the basis that
their readership, no matter how knowledgeable, wants to learn. This
book happily serves as an agreeable companion for browsing as well as
It is one of the consistent weaknesses of these books
that they omit playing times. I do hope that the team will change this
approach in future. While I will be condemned for a grocer's approach
to music I start off with a special affection for those discs that do
not stint on playing time.
As someone who absorbed most of his musical knowledge
from The Gramophone, BBC Radio 3 and books like this one I can commend
it as a source of factual information. It can happily function as a
signpost to the collector/music lover who has discovered one work and
would like to find similar pieces in the hope of repeating or intensifying
Do not be too implicitly trusting of the recommendations
or of the condemnations. If you loved a particular recording trust your
own ears and do not discard it just because the Penguin team do not
favour it. I would say that of any 'guide'. Keep your own counsel and
if possible try to hear a version before you buy it. You will not necessarily
react with the same pleasure to a top recommendation as the critic who
made that recommendation. Music is, thankfully, a very personal thing.
You will develop your own likes and loves and they may well change as
the years pass and new experiences impinge.
Robert Layton is a writer of great perspicacity, informative
and authoritative in his field. I have often been guided by his recommendations
amongst Scandinavian works. That said, he has consistently decried Gösta
Nystroem's Sinfonia del Mare and does so again on p. 944 when
he reviews Phono Suecia CD 709 (Svetlanov and Swedish Radio forces).
He followed the same line in his early 1980s Gramophone survey of Scandinavian
music. The criticism is that the symphony is distinctly short on
thematic invention and its main … idea overstays its welcome. I
know the Svetlanov disc and have also, for years, been deeply moved
by the Westerberg version on Swedish Society Discofil. For me it is
a work of ineffable beauty and I cannot relate Mr Layton's criticism
of it to my own experience. You will receive commendations from various
quarters - always trust your own ears.
I came across hardly any typographical errors. In fact
the only one I found was in the Sibelius section: Phyllis Bryn-Julson
is wrongly listed as Phyllis Bryn-Johnson. I mention this
so that it can be corrected in 2004. She is the singer on the Chandos
Luonnotar set - Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Alexander Gibson.
The introduction to the Guide makes sensible and undeniable
points about not being able to include every single CD. Where they undermine
their point is to say that selection is done on the basis of 'lack of
ready availability'. What does this mean? In the age of Internet access
and with 39% of UK households (not sure about US percentages) having
internet access a grain of persistence will usually allow you to track
down even the 'most obscure' of discs. All you need to do in many cases
is go the www.google.com and key in the details and you will in many
(not all) cases be able to find what you are looking for.
Second-hand discs can be tracked down through various
sources including putting out a plea on the r.m.c.r. newsgroup. Recently
I was able to track down the deleted Miaskovsky Symphony No. 21 on Unicorn
with the New Philharmonia and David Measham. I put out a plea on the
newsgroup and one of the US subscribers to the group found it in a nearby
shop. Hancock and Monks have a delightfully uncluttered website with
long lists of secondhand CDs and there are many other sites you can
use. Go to the UK's MDT and Crotchet sites and a search might well bring
up items which other sources may report as deleted. True esoterica can
be found at Records International. Berkshire Record Outlet is also a
superb source for cut-outs, overstocks and deleted discs.
A sprinkling of CDs from the smaller labels are included.
A great example comes in the form of the two Australian Tall Poppies
CDs of chamber and piano music by Arthur Benjamin. The Reference Recordings
collection of Malcolm Arnold overtures conducted by the composer appears
on page 22.
I was shocked to find that not one of the host of orchestral
Hovhaness CDs from Crystal have been listed under Alan Hovhaness. What
you do get are two Delos discs - nothing wrong with those discs but
there is some extraordinary material on Crystal. One at least of those
discs should have been reviewed. The omission of the Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt/VPO
Decca set of Beethoven symphonies is presumably down to the publication
cut-off date. What though of the Franz Konwitschny complete Beethoven
on Berlin Classics. This should really have been mentioned.
Off-key (off my 'key' anyway) personal judgements include
the following. The Guide commends the sound and performance of the Barbirolli/Sibelius
Second Symphony. This is the one included in the Hallé/EMI boxed
set. Barbirolli's outstanding Sibelius 2 was with the RPO on Chesky
but it is not listed. The EMI version is pallid and slack by comparison.
On the other hand the Guide is disparaging of the EMI Sibelius 1 (in
relation to its sound). In fact I found that the most successful of
the whole EMI box both in terms of sound and interpretative values.
On p.243 Szell's 1960s Brahms recordings (SONY) with
the Cleveland are praised for their power and mastery and I share that
view. However the sound is referred to as clear and bright with superb
detail. While this is true of symphonies 2-4, the First Symphony is
in sound that is bright enough but is narrow in range, not at all transparent
and generally rather diffuse and treble-emphasised. I thought it sounded
scrawny - the worst of the set.
It is rather a pity that the initials of the author
are not placed against particular reviews. At least in that way you
would be able to build up experience of the character, tastes and judgement
of the writer. Perhaps the time will come. For now when end up buying
on a Penguin recommendation something you do not like you cannot tell
which of the triumvirate made the recommendation.
The Guide is proposed to be issued once every two years;
so the next one should appear in 2004.
Ivan March points out that one could hardly squeeze
in any more reviews. This volume already runs to 1566 pages. So what
are Penguin and Mr March to do for the 2004 edition? Penguin invite
you to suggest what approaches should be taken for future volumes. Rather
tragically in this age of easy and instant electronic communication,
Penguin indicate that readers' proposals have to be sent in by letter.
E-mail is not accepted.
Various permutations are listed. Several involve the
production of a Yearbook in every year when the main guide is not published.
This would take some page pressure off the main Guide. My own 'hard
copy' preference would be for Ivan March's third option which involves
producing the Guide in two volumes e.g. A-M and N-Z.
Of course the most practical preference from the point
of view of the IT-enabled collector and music-lover is a computer-based
work in which space and page limits would not be an issue anyway. For
the increasing number of people who can browse the record shops with
palmtop or mobile phone in hand this has to be amongst the most attractive
choices especially as screen clarity comes along by leaps and bounds.
These are the folk who will be able to check the choices against the
Penguin recommendations while in the shop in front of the racks.
If you want a hard back version of this book then you
will need to contact the Squires Gate Music Centre Ltd. It seems that
they have a limited number of hardback versions at the cost of £30 each.
TRY email@example.com or (+44) (0) 1253 782588.
This book is extremely highly commended. It will entertain,
annoy, inform and startle you in various measures and that is just as
it should be. Do not treat it as 'The Bible'; read by all means - you
will be enriched by the experience - but listen also and make up your
own mind. Evaluation of music and of its interpretation is a highly
No-one can open this book and not come away better
informed and sometimes enthused about concert music in all its forms.
An ideal Christmas present for the dedicated classical CD collector
or someone you might like to become a dedicated collector. Beginners
could hardly have a better companion but it will reward even seasoned