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The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs and DVDs: Yearbook 2004/5
- Best Buys in Classical Music
by Ivan March, Edward Greenfield, Robert Layton
Assistant Editor: Paul Czajkowski

153 x 234mm
768 pages
ISBN 0140515232 Penguin

This is a book which in its extended title tells us that it is about ‘Best Buys in classical music.’

It is an out-runner to the work it updates and supplements: namely the 1566 page ‘Penguin Guide to Compact Discs and DVDs’ published in 2003.

Is it valuable even if you do not have the ‘main work’? Yes but as a browser for reviews of a selection among the CD releases made since the main work went to press. There is also a far larger number of reviews of discs from previous years’ versions of the main guide restored to assert any perceived imbalance in the main work.

It is a pretty unforgiving mission really when you think of the floods of new classical CDs that emerge onto the market every month. How could anyone keep up?

Although still viewed askance in some areas the voice of Penguin on Classical CDs is at least something that cannot be ignored. I did not say that they were necessarily to be venerated or followed as if Holy Scripture. Its voices are too English, even too ‘old guard’ Gramophone, to be entirely credible in some quarters. For example the grandees of the r.m.c.r. newsgroup regularly hold Penguin in the balance and find it wanting. Their views are to be implied from the dismissive title it is occasionally given ‘Penguinphone’ - a sort of Penguin-Gramophone hybrid.

It is by no means perfect but it has its place. Read it for stimulation; do not read it as a Bible.

The trap here is not so much any perceived English artist preference or English composer bias in Penguin as the elevation of any voice to the status of definitive godhead. Listeners can make up their own minds although granted they may make some expensive mistakes along the way in finding their own particular ‘grail’ discs. Listen to friends’ recommended recordings, listen to the radio, sample recordings at Borders and on the internet, read reviews but keep your own counsel.

This book like so many others including the illustrious Fanfare and Gramophone is there to provide us with stimulation and information, to mislead and disappoint us, to infuriate, to teach and even to bore us rigid. That’s what Fanfare, MusicWeb, Classics Today, Gramophone, IRR, Diapason and Penguin are about. As with all ‘authorities’ you simply need to keep your wits about you and have confidence in and assert your own judgement on what enthuses or inspires. Once you find your own ‘guru’ whose judgement you trust then cleave to her or his voice in future reviews.

What of the detail of this Yearbook? Well, there are too many symbols: rosettes and now keys. Time to rationalise, please. Of course the significance of the two is distinguished in the introduction to the book but it’s getting to be too much of a bother.

And what of their recommendations and the details of the book. It’s as tall as the main volume but not as deep. The cover includes an illustration that is an inset detail of the cover of the master volume. Layout follows that of the master too: two snaking columns of text.

The recommendations .....

Spot-on is the accolade to Regis’s wonderful and incredibly cheap Barber orchestral collection on RRC1139. This is from Australian tapes originally on Unicorn.

Great to see the Chandos Handley-Bax symphonies getting the key symbol. Good also to see Sterling’s Cliffe Symphony rosetted and the reviewer inciting companies to have a go at the Violin Concerto and the Second Symphony.

The Gemini set of the Barshai-Donohoe Tchaikovsky piano concertos quite properly gets a key accolade.

Previn’s RVW RCA-BMG set, at bargain price, deserves one too but has to settle for three stars instead.

The British Music Society does quite well with three stars for its 3 CD Sorabji collection. I declare my interest here as a member and as editor of the BMS newsletter but I am very pleased to see the efforts of John Talbot (the producer) properly rewarded.

It is a delight to see the Naxos - Griffes orchestral collection receiving a key symbol.

Michael J. Lewis’s film music anthology is knowledgeably reviewed and warmly recommended on p.218. Valuable advocacy for such an out-of-the-way composer. This is one of the justifying reasons for books such as this.

On p.72 the BMS CD of Mewton-Wood concerto recordings is greeted very warmly. It includes the Bliss Piano Concerto but the review refers to Beeecham with three Es. And the Utrecht Symphony Orchestra have become the Utrech Symphony Orchestra.

Other typos are there if you go looking. Here’s my list: In the review of the Waxman film music we get Prince Valliant rather than Prince Valiant on p.414. Prokofiev on p. 283 has fugitivies rather than fugitives. Finally, for good measure, the pianist Heinrich Neuhaus becomes Heinrich Neuheus on p.746.

Sadly Karłowicz is denied his Polish Ł whereas on p.224 Penguin seem to have gone berserk with the Polish Ł and given it to Lutosławski’s first as well as the second so he becomes Łutoslawski. Correctly it should be Lutosławski.

The entry for the Chandos’s Bax collection including The Golden Eagle mentions Bax’s Russian love interest as Natalia Skarginsky. Wrong - it was Skarginska.

The review of the Chandos Bax Irish tone poems mentions a triology of Erse tone poems - trilogy, I think.

Why is the EMI Gemini Franz Schmidt, conducted by Welser-Möst, rosetted when its crucial tenor (Stig Andersen) is afflicted with such apparent difficulty in holding a note without wide vibrato. Ah well, personal taste again ... but Schreier (Orfeo) is so much better ... and then so is Dermota (Preiser).

On p.133 Constantinescu’s oratorio The Nativity is listed on Olympia OCD 402; this despite the tragic demise of that label getting on for twelve months ago. In fact there are a selection of Olympia reviews here all of which will leave you frustrated unless you can pick up back-of-bin stock. The same applies to the two discs of Kabalevsky one of which (Requiem) had been deleted by Olympia for years before their folding. The review of the disc including Shebalin’s Symphony No. 5 is in the same category.

Russian Discs appear quite a few times. Penguin seem to have resurrected the company. Perhaps they know something I do not know (quite possible) but why are Russian Discs listed at all. They were deleted at least five years ago. Not that I would object if they were reissued. It is good to see the Russian Disc reviews of Lyatoshinsky, Miaskovsky and Taneyev symphonies but when they are available only secondhand why raise people’s hopes?

Brilliant Classics now gets an isolated and grudging reference before a sequence of reviews of the individual Haydn symphony series as conducted by Fischer. Why on earth is this company not given more prominence? Why are they and for that matter the German History label not mentioned in the Foreword. It is not as if they cannot be ordered easily off the internet and their prices are very keen indeed. Brilliant Classics and a handful of other bargain price operators represent an important tranche of the market and yet they are all but ignored. This is the slice of the market that arouses most interest among impecunious collectors.

The book includes whole sections of reviews devoted to Nimbus’s Prima Voce series, EMI Classics/IMG’s Great Conductors of the Century and EMI Record of Singing. SACDs are reviewed in their appropriate place in the alphabetical sequence. Documentaries on DVDs are dealt with across the final four pages of the book. This is very good to see. And for those of you who missed reviews of anthologies and recital discs in the master volume the balance is redressed across 300 pages. These are preceded by the classic A-Z reviews across pages 1 to 422.

This is more in the nature of a companion to a leviathan. It will provide the usual store of provocative reading for Christmas and well into the new year while we await the 2005/6 main volume. Set against its many rewards the flaws, although not to be forgotten, should not blind us to a valuable contribution to the music-lover’s shelves.

Rob Barnett

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