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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett


THE PENGUIN GUIDE TO COMPACT DISCS: The Guide To Excellence In Recorded Music
2002 Edition
Edited by Ivan March
Reviews by: Ivan March; Edward Greenfield; Robert Layton
1566pp ISBN 0-14-051-497
20.00

Published Nov 22nd


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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, excellent.

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 bargain.

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 reference.

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 the experience.

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 sales@lprl.demon.co.uk 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 personal thing.

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 collectors.

Rob Barnett


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