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1001 Classical Recordings You Must Hear Before You Die
General Editor Matthew Rye
ISBN: 1844035794
13 Digit ISBN: 9781844035793
Publication Date: 15 Nov 2007
Format: Paperback
Page Size: 210 x 160mm
Number of Pages: 960
Price: 20.00
CASSELL – Octopus Books

Here’s a book for music-lovers who would like to expand their experience of music through CDs. It is especially valuable if they are comparatively new to classical music.

There’s the hint of a lofty promise in the title. Is this really some short-cut to the nirvana of the perfect collection? The press release that came with it rams the point home by saying that it will ensure readers do not ‘waste money on less accomplished performances’. This is a tough assignment where fortune favours only the bold. There’s no accounting for taste so be aware that you are not onto a sure-fire route to the very best. You may yet find yourself apathetic or antipathetic to these recommendations. By all means make a start with this book. Keep your own counsel and be ready to disagree if you find yourself unmoved by some or all of these recommendations. You are not necessarily at fault for not liking the recommended performances.

Look again at the title: 1001 Classical Recordings You Must Hear Before You Die. There’s no promise that you are going to like them but that they are important enough for you to seek out and hear. In that sense the list is akin to an answer to the question about which CDs you would try to rescue if your house was on fire (after saving your family and others first!) or which CDs you would take to a desert island. It’s just that here the choice is of 1001 recordings rather than the handful you would be able to save from the flames or carry with you to the island.

On the other hand you could do much worse than start here on your journey of discovery. Refreshingly the large team of distinguished writers includes a large contingent not associated with Gramophone or the Penguin Guide. There are 35 names in all and they include Jan Smaczny, Peter Quantrill, Erik Levi, Tully Potter, David Nice, Stephen Pettit, Anthony Burton, Colin Anderson, Jessica Duchen, Max Loppert, Stephen Johnson and Malcolm MacDonald. The writer is identified by initials at the end of each review.

This weighty slab of a book is extremely well presented. Its format is to present recordings grouped chronologically into the eras in which the music was written. It starts with the Harmonia Mundi disc of the original Carmina Burana and ends with Julian Anderson’s Book of Hours on NMC. Entries vary between two pages with one full page occupied by the review, the label and catalogue details, a pull-quote about the performer or the music and a panel of other Recommended Recordings. The other facing page is a photo of the performer or composer concerned. That’s the major display format. These are interspersed with pages on which there are two reviews side by side.

You soon notice that money must have been lavished on licensing a fresh set of photographs of artists and composers. For the most part the tired old suspects are discarded and new illustrations used. There’s a glorious new (to me) photograph of Puccini, his face lit mysteriously as his hands cup a cigarette. Also I do not recall seeing that particular Bax studio photo before. There are plenty of examples and the pictures are one of the joys of this book.

Just to emphasise that this book does not set out to provide a mass of reviews and make recommendations in passing. In that sense it is not like the annual Gramophone or Penguin guides. It is what it says: a very personal listing of 1001 Classical Recordings You Must Hear Before You Die.

As for the choices made there is no end to the scope for argument but it is as good a list as any. I agree emphatically with much of it but disagree in others. Irritations speak of my own musical prejudices so here are a few: There’s way too much Britten here – entry after entry distributed through the last section of the book. Maybe five items but this many? Karajan gets a lot of space too, especially in areas where I feel his versions, though good enough, are not a patch on others. His good Sibelius is included but there are better and more inspirational and humanely imaginative versions that should have been preferred.

I was disappointed that certain recordings never made it into this list. Horst Stein’s vivid Sibelius En Saga on Decca is to be preferred to most versions and certainly to Karajan’s. No space was found for Moeran’s G minor symphony conducted by Boult and reissued this year on Lyrita. It would have been a quirky choice for the top 1000 but it would have been my choice. For The Firebird the Rattle/CBSO version is preferred over so many others including the Dorati/LSO on Mercury – now the Dorati is a recording to hear before you die. While Mravinsky’s stereo Tchaikovsky 4-5-6 are included – and rightly so – his incandescent Sibelius Seventh is not. Oistrakh’s Sibelius Violin Concerto with Rozhdestvensky is there but only because it is ‘on the flip-side’ of Oistrakh’s Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. Bax’s Third Symphony is the for me somewhat tired first choice among Bax’s seven – and then in the Handley version as part of his Chandos box of the Seven Symphonies. It is for me amongst the last of the Bax symphonies I would recommend to the adventurous listener. Rather start with a work studiously neglected here. For that go to Norman Del Mar’s Bax Sixth on Lyrita. Unaccountably no space is found for Nystroem’s Sinfonia Del Mare (Stig Westerberg on Swedish Society Discofil). I could go on but the fact is that we could all come up with our own lists and leagues. The value of such books is that they inform and provoke … and if they stimulate listeners to explore then all to the good. This book fits the bill.

This book is part of a Cassell series which also includes: 1001 Albums, 1001 Natural Wonders, 1001 Golf Holes, 1001 Movies.

An idiosyncratic book that deserves to do well at Christmas and in the new year.

Rob Barnett


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