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The Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music 2008
Ivan March, Edward Greenfield, Robert Layton and Paul Czajkowski
(London: Penguin, 2007) 1588pp.
Paperback ISBN 978-0-141-03336-5

rrp 25 but currently 17.50 ($19.80) from Amazon UK and US



Brian Wilson’s review of this new Penguin guide is already on site. Brian assesses, in some depth, where the 2008 Guide scores and where it errs - mainly, for him, errors of omission. I intend to cover its usefulness, as a tool, in assessing best buys, and to compare it with its newly published rival the Gramophone Classical Music Guide 2008. My review of that publication is here.

The first thing to note is that from now onwards the full Penguin Guide will be published annually The sort of half-way house that was, for example, the leaner 700-page, The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs & DVDs Yearbook 2006/7 which updated the previous fully fledged Guide, is to be a thing of the past.

With recordings coming at us from all directions through CDs, DVDs, iTunes, Emusic, own label websites, podcasting, it is not surprising that the Penguin Guide will now be published annually. Better go into training to lug its increasing weight home and at the same time build more extra-strong shelving!

By the way it would be useful if somebody, soon, did a survey into buying patterns and to ascertain whether the market, as a whole, is expanding – or not.

So to the comparisons:

First PRICE and PAGES (number and format):-

Penguin: 1,588 pages; 25 but currently 17.50 ($19.80) from Amazon UK & US Gramophone: 1414 pages; AmazonUK 16.24 AmazonUS $23.07

The formats are both large paperback. The Penguin Guide is 6 inches wide, the Gramophone just 5 inches. Correspondingly, the Penguin column width is greater (by roughly inch); its type size is larger and clearer and the paper stock is whiter so reading is a much easier and more pleasant experience.

First round to Penguin


The Reviewers:

Penguin: a well-established team: Ivan March, Edward Greenfield Robert Layton and Paul Cjajkowski. I’ve often wondered if they lead and edit the work of an unnamed team, if not I have to admire their veracity.

Gramophone: A team of some 80 named experienced reviewers (including Messrs March, Greenfield and Layton), each an expert in the period of music they review.

For both publications, the reviews are graded and organized quite similarly. Four price ranges are indicated, by symbols, in both tomes; Penguin does not gives a symbol for full price releases.

Penguin evaluates using a 1-4 star-rating system ranging upwards from "A fair or somewhat routine performance…" to "…really exceptional on every count" with a key graphic to indicate, "key" recordings that are top recommendations; and a rosette for certain special issues.

Gramophone has a diamond for "simply the best", and 1-3 disc symbols for, "strongly recommended"; "outstanding"; and "classic". When no disc is shown readers must assume that the recording is "recommended – a good performance with the odd reservation". Gramophone’s $ cash bag indicates a low priced but exceptional recording.

For emphasis both Penguin and Gramophone now box reviews of outstanding releases. As to be expected there are differences. For instance both books recommend the Pappano (EMI) and Monteux (Testament) recordings of Massenet’s Manon but only Penguin boxes them. But then Gramophone boxes - with comment in the boxes - eight recordings (led by Heifetz) of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto whereas Penguin boxes only five but also covers over twenty others.

So the judgement here must be purely subjective, either one or the other; however, the keenest and more affluent professionals might plump for both.

Second Round – my cop-out - A Draw

Extras: Here the field is clearer.


Penguin has none

Gramophone has two: one of "Artists": conductors, orchestras and ensembles, soloists. The other is a very useful index. Ever been frustrated trying to find two reviews of works by two different composers on one record; perhaps the Bruch and Mendelssohn Violin Concertos? Well, Gramophone has an Index of Couplings


Penguin has none beyond the necessary introductory matter.

Gramophone is feature rich. They include the current ‘Records of the Year’; ‘100 Great Recordings’; suggestions of works to build a basic library; and essays on the historical periods of music from Early Music to The Romantic Era and ‘Into the Future’. The latter feature, useful for many who might find ‘Modern’ works ‘difficult’, has a list of seminal works, from Bartók to Varèse; an explanation of the term ‘Serialism’, a list of key terms, ‘Recommended Repertoire Exploration’ and a box entitled ‘Looking into the Future’ with another list that includes recordings of: Adams’s El Niño, Pärt’s Lamentate. Da Pacem Domine and Turnage’s Scherzoid and Yet Another Set To.

Round three to Gramophone

For the serious collector both books are indispensable and complement each other.

Ian Lace



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