This is a book which
in its extended title tells us that
it is about ‘Best Buys in classical
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
denied his Polish Ł whereas on
p.224 Penguin seem to have gone berserk
with the Polish Ł and given it
first as well as the second so he becomes
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,
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
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?
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.