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The Key Classical recordings on CD, DVD and SACD

Reviews by: Ivan March; Edward Greenfield; Robert Layton

Edited by Ivan March

Assistant Editor: Paul Czajkowski


1520 pp.

ISBN 0-141-02262-0



‘The bible for the discriminating record collector.’ That’s the way David Mellor describes the Penguin Guide’s role; a mentor for collectors of recordings of classical music.

With the names of March, Greenfield and Layton as the triumvirate reviewing team the Penguin Guide is very much the voice of old Gramophone - pre-Jolly if not quite pre-glitz. This should be encouraging because at least this means we are getting informed judgements, eloquently and expansively put across. However, as we shall see, it could have been even better. It’s a triumph - that’s for sure - so don’t let my observations hold you back.

Some historical perspective: The Penguin series traces its origins from the hardback Stereo Record Guide, the first issue of which came out in 1960. There were eight more volumes after that. The first Penguin Stereo Record Guide appeared in 1975 and there have been further editions since then each reflecting in its title the arrival or decline of a new medium (LP, cassette, CD, SACD, DVD). The 1988 issue had compact disc listed first in the title. By 1990 the book had become the Penguin Guide to Compact Discs seven years after the launch of the silver carrier. A new edition has appeared once every two years since then.

Instant impressions about the new edition. Its ‘look and feel’ first. It’s a big and burly paperback. Both the 2002 and the 2003/4 guides had the same number of pages (1566pp) but the new edition has dropped to 1520pp. That said the key recordings list that took up circa 40 pages in the 2003/4 issue has now disappeared - a welcome loss! In its place there is a much more compact ‘Hundred Outstanding Recordings’ and ‘Fifteen Outstanding DVDs’ at the start of the volume.

The paper stock used in 2002 was more cream than white but contrast, with a good clear black font against a white ground, is a feature of both the new edition and its immediate predecessor.

Reviews remain in alphabetical order by composer name. Within each composer entry they are organised: orchestral, vocal and stage although the programming ingenuity of the companies mercilessly tests the categories time after time. The reviews are presented in double snaking columns. The experience of browsing the book is pleasing although it’s a weighty tome better suited to reading at a table than perusing in an armchair and certainly not for toting around the record shops ... at least not until it can be downloaded into your PDA.

DVD and SACD recordings are now dealt with in the relevant composer’s alphabetical section alongside CD reviews. It’s a sign of the times that in 2002 DVDs were allotted a ghetto of their own at the end of the book.

The usual panoply of keys, rosettes and stars (from one to three; more = better) are used. I wonder whether the time has come for some rationalisation here. The key symbol denotes a recommendation that a reviewed disc might form the basis of a personal collection.

Ivan March’s commentary on the Key Recordings is disarming stressing that these are for guidance only. The listener is enjoined to make choices according to personal inclinations. Well said!

The Foreword is shorter than for 2003/4 and now includes a section on Surround Sound and what’s more both Regis and Naxos come in for some well merited extended praise. The 2006 Yearbook - a top-up to the present volume - is trumpeted as is the Alwyn centenary.

In passing I noticed the following as I leafed my way through:-

p. 19 - Arnoldinan should presumably be Arnoldian.

p. 87 - wonderful to see Fritz Werner’s Bach cantata Warner Erato boxes receiving some moderated acclaim

p. 239 - I was surprised to see Tjeknavorian’s vivid and lucid 1970s BMG collection of Borodin’s three symphonies ranked below the Järvi set on DG.

p. 314 - Alan Bush gets superb treatment even taking on board the Claudio recording of the Violin Concerto as well as both of the Meridian collections.

p. 590 - again I was surprised to see the Delos Schwarz recordings of the Hanson symphonies preferred to the first three and Lament for Beowulf (possibly Hanson’s finest work) recorded by the composer on Mercury.

p. 591 - The Albany TROY CD of Roy Harris ‘s second symphony is said to be coupled with Harris’s Third Symphony - wrong! The coupling is the third symphony of Morton Gould.

p. 651 - The Hovhaness entry has gone into autopilot again with this intriguing composer’s only entries being the two Delos doubles - both deleted anyway. Why is there not a single reference to the Crystal series or to the two Hovhaness discs on Naxos.

p. 685 - has a spot-on appraisal of the wonderful original Khachaturian Gayaneh conducted by Tjeknavorian and reissued from its LP format

p. 689 - 2005 saw the release on Capriccio of Koechlin’s extraordinary orchestral poems Le Docteur Fabricius and Vers la Voûte . There’s no sign of it here.

p. 779 - where is the entry for Joseph Marx? Not here, it seems. It is deeply regrettable that the Romantic Concerto and the Castelli Romana concerto (ASV) as well as the Naturtrilogie (ASV again) rate not a single mention. Myopic in the extreme.

p. 937 - Not a mention either of the Dux recording of Paderewski’s attractive folksy opera Manru.

p. 1072 - just one entry for Ropartz. Next edition we should have the complete symphonies reviewed (Timpani).

p. 1107 - Joly Braga Santos is represented by the Marco Polo coupling of symphonies 3 and 6. The latter is one of his most opaque pieces. It is inexplicable to me that No. 4, superbly recorded on Marco Polo, never made it - perhaps reserved for the 2006 yearbook - I hope so.

p. 1119 - Thank heavens the Schoeck entry has spread its wings to five reviews compared with the only 2 in the 2003/4 issue.

p. 1184 - delightful to see that Cyril Scott gets something approaching his due with full reviews of the Dutton and Chandos releases.

p. 1197 - Shostakovich - Infuriating to see the Brilliant Classics Barshai set disdained yet again. Where, for that matter, is a review of the Korean box of Kondrashin’s superbly remastered 1960s and 1970s recordings. Nowhere in sight! This is a seriously unbalanced appraisal.

p. 1217 - the Beulah set of the Anthony Collins seven Sibelius symphonies has been deleted for years now. Nevertheless the entry for that box still appears on p 1216. It is down to Penguin’s good luck that Beulah have now risen Phoenix-like. The four CD set with those classic Decca FFRR mono recordings is being reissued early in 2006.

p. 1215 - continuing a tradition established in 2002 and repeated in 2003/4 the current edition insists on identifying the soprano in the Gibson-Sibelius Luonnotar as Phyllis Bryn-Johnson no matter how many times people mention that it is Phyllis Bryn-Julson.

I am not sure why Penguin continue to pay little attention to Brilliant Classics sets. They are often superb value for money yet this mentor to the serious collector ignores them or does them only scant justice.

It is a pleasure to see that the first mono RVW symphonies cycle by Boult is now mentioned and warmly recommended complete with its Everest-originated ninth symphony. Also good to see a sensationally well-merited rosette and key for the wonderfully good value for money of Previn’s RVW symphony cycle.

Still no room at the Penguin inn for the powerful and very individual sounding music of Arnold Rosner and such a pity that even if Rozsa's Tripartita on the bargain label Kleos is considered beyond the pale yet the new CPO recording of that work does not rate a mention..

Small US labels such as Phoenix (therefore no Kernis despite his merited ascendancy on Argo during the mid-1990s), First Edition (now carrying the Louisville torch) and Citadel continue to be cold-shouldered.

Miaskovsky - while one of the weaknesses of the Penguin guide is its tendency to retain reviews of discs that have been long deleted we must be ironically pleased that the Olympia CDs of Svetlanov’s recordings of the symphonies are no longer there - the whole label having been deleted. However even that entry does not escape unscathed because they insist on listing a Russian Disc recording of symphonies 1 and 19 and that disc has been deleted for at least five years.

Penguin chooses to ignore the existence of the first (CBS-Sony) Bernstein Sibelius symphonies bargain box. Remarkable.

This book remains the most capacious and stimulating guide structured on a CD by CD basis. You could do a great deal worse than be steered by these recommendations. However, as with any authoritative voice do keep your channels of judgement open. Do try to hear other versions as well as those commended or condemned by the Guide.

Christmas looms and this book is a natural to satisfy many enquiring music-lovers and repertoire explorers. We are not told how many reviews have simply been carried forward from the last issue or how many reviews are completely new to this one. Even so this still comes with a clear if not completely unclouded recommendation. The best of what is available but it could easily have been even better.

Rob Barnett

The most satisfying and wide-ranging classical review book on the market. ... see Full Review


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