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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


The latest edition of the Penguin Guide is bigger than ever – 1588 pages against the 1520 of the last complete edition, that for 2005/6. It’s changed its name, too, with the subtitle The Key Classical Recordings on CD, DVD and SACD. I’ve owned every version of this Guide since The Stereo Record Guide, as it was, became the Penguin Guide in the 1970s – and even earlier when, in the 1960s, Penguin issued their Guide to Bargain Records, distilled from the hardback volumes.

Whatever else I may say about the new edition, let me make clear at the outset that the Guide remains an important tool for the serious collector of recorded classical music. When I saw it on sale in a Central London store, I knew I had to buy it, even though its weight was a considerable disadvantage on a rush-hour train when I already had several other heavy objects with me. It really is a heavy tome and, even so, some important recordings have had to be omitted from the headings, with brief details and catalogue numbers given only in the body of the review.

The new edition contains the usual maddening mix of excellence and opportunities missed. There is so much on the market now, as compared with the 1960s, that it is purely impossible to cover everything – and even in the 1960s they had to resort to a two-volume situation. Maybe that would be the best answer now – A-L one year, M-Z the next – instead of issuing a full Guide every other year with a Yearbook for the intervening year. The Yearbook solution means duplication of material and, in any case, we have to wait for the Yearbook to get the reviews of concerts and recitals, no longer able to be carried in the main volume.

I welcome the innovations made in the new Guide. We now have four-star recommendations for really outstanding issues, thus dealing with the criticism that there were simply too many *** and **(*) recommendations. Is the rather under-powered Naxos JanŠček Sinfonietta, for example, really worth ***?

I may not agree with all the new four-star recommendations, and I am not sure what the difference is between a four-star and a rosetted three-star CD: perhaps this inconsistency will be ironed out next time around. The ‘key’ symbol is retained from earlier editions.

Key repertoire with *** and **** recommendations is now made to stand out by being boxed in grey. Some of the highlighting seems rather busy, thus defeating the purpose – nine highlighted versions of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto in various couplings – but this is probably inevitable when there are so many excellent recordings out there.

The other very useful thing about the Guide is its ability to remind us of those recordings which have slipped in under the radar, especially those marked with the now long-standing symbol (N) for new. The new fonts employed for this symbol and for the (BB), (B) and (M) price-level indicators make for greater clarity, though not all recordings new to the Guide are so marked. Several of the Australian Eloquence issues, for example, are new without being marked as such, but I am grateful to the Guide for reminding me of their existence, since most of them have not appeared in magazine reviews, together with the myriad valuable reissues on labels such as Apex and Eloquence.

The new Australian Eloquence series is well represented but several older European-sourced Eloquence bargains failed to make into earlier editions and are still absent from the 2008 Guide. Where is the Curzon/Vienna Octet version of Schubert’s Trout Quintet, coupled with the Death and the Maiden Quartet, a first-class bargain on 467 417-2? The wonderful Janet Baker/Bernard Haitink Mahler das Lied von der Erde is listed in its 2-CD format but the Eloquence separate issue, an even better bargain on 468 182-2, is not. Colin Davis’s excellent Boston set of the Shostakovich symphonies on two 2-CD sets is listed, as is his LSO version of Nos. 5 and 6, but his Eloquence Boston version of these two symphonies (468 198-2) is not.

Haitink’s version of Shostakovich’s 5th and 9th Symphonies (Eloquence 467 478-2), which is not listed, is a better bargain than the Naxos/Rahbari at the same price, which is listed. His version of Shostakovich’s 8th (467 465-2) would have been worth listing as a useful supplement to other versions at the very least.

Where the Guide reviews recordings which have come my way, it is gratifying to see how closely their judgement accords with my own. Inevitably, of course, there will be differences of opinion – I am pleased to note that the over-generous reviews of the Naxos versions of Shostakovich’s Leningrad and 8th Symphonies were dropped several editions ago, though the *** for the JanŠček remains – but the Guide can usually be relied on for a sane, well-informed view.

How could it be other when Edward Greenfield is still one of those at the helm? He would probably hate to be reminded how long he has been reviewing for Gramophone – as I hate to remind myself how long I have been reading those reviews – but long ago I learned to rely on his reviews and those of Trevor Harvey as Holy Writ. Only once did he let me down when, in the Guardian, he recommended the underpowered Naxos Shostakovich CDs which I have mentioned.

The other reviewers, too, are long-term and reliable. I am pleased to note that they have taken at least some new blood on board: Paul Czajkowski, formerly listed as Assistant Editor, now gets full credit. Very rarely do we find out who contributed which review, though occasionally one or other named reviewer inserts a caveat.

Having had to eat humble pie myself recently for bungling a CD number, I am amazed that so few typos get through a Guide which contains so many recordings. None of which will prevent me from revealing them when I come across them in future reviews without, I hope, too much smug pedantry.

Surprisingly, the new Guide has carried over some numerical oddities from long-gone editions. The Pascal Rogé 2-CD set of Saint-Saëns Piano Concertos retains, in italics, a phantom cassette number, 443 865-4.

I have already indicated that this will be a mixed review. My most serious criticism of the new edition of the Guide is that it seems to be more out-of-date already than earlier editions. The 2006/7 Yearbook contained some Gothic Voices reissues, complete with Helios catalogue numbers, which Hyperion have not reissued even yet. The new Guide, however, seems much less up-to-date than its predecessors. The cut-off point seems to be the Spring of 2007 so that when we do reach 2008 the Guide which bears that year in its title will be almost a year out-of-date. Of course, any review tends to become obsolete in a very short time: I didn’t realise when I reviewed the reissue of Leif-Ove Andsnes’ first version of the Grieg Piano Concerto that his second version, more logically coupled with the Schumann, was due for reissue only weeks later on the very promising new EMI Recommends label.

The new Guide seems, however, to have become obsolete more quickly than usual. I can’t complain that the second Andsnes version of the Grieg is still listed at full price, but I am surprised that Haitink’s Rosenkavalier is still listed as full-price when it has been available at mid-price for some time. (The number of the mid-price reissue is correctly given, 3 58618 2).

The new Guide contains very few of the CDs which I have reviewed for Musicweb since I began in June. Those that do appear are mostly reissues: it would have been comparatively simple, for example, to write the review of Bob van Asperen’s performance of Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier on two Virgin 2-CD sets, since there was already a review in the 2005/6 edition of the 4-CD set of these recordings, copied verbatim in the new edition. (Nothing wrong with that, of course.)

One of my June reviews, for example, was of Volume II of Naxos’s Corelli Op. 5 Sonatas: the Guide has not got beyond Volume I, issued several years ago. The Regis versions of Mozart Piano Concertos (Tirimo) and the Schubert String Quintet which I also reviewed in June have still not made it to the new Guide.

Nor is the Naxos recording of Ireland’s String Quartets and The Holy Boy, reviewed by my colleague Michael Cookson in August 2006, to be found. Admittedly MC thought the Quartets themselves immature works – actually I rate them rather higher than he does – but he recommended the playing of the Maggini Quartet and the disc is certainly well worth mentioning.

In the operatic field, too, there are serious omissions. Three DVDs of Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse are listed, one receiving only a single star. Christie’s version, surely worth three stars in any money, is not listed. (Virgin 4906129 – a top-selling version with at least one major mail-order company.) The ultra-bargain 3-CD set on Brilliant Classics 93104 is also worthy of mention: in fact, on the basis of having heard this version, I feel safe in recommending the Brilliant versions of the other Monteverdi operas.

Taking at random some of the recent Gramophone award-winners and runners-up, Julia Fischer’s Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto is represented, as are Simon Rattle’s Brahms Requiem and David Lloyd-Jones’ version of Elgar’s Spirit of England but not the AAM Handel Op.3 Concertos or John Butt’s 1741 version of Handel’s Messiah. The Opus 111/Alessandrini 3-CD set of Monteverdi’s Madrigals Book 8 (with rosette and four stars, deservedly) is listed but so is the now superseded single CD of items from Book 8. The Recording of the Year, the Nelson Freire/Riccardo Chailly 2-CD set of the Brahms Piano Concertos – the only serious challenger to the now classic Gilels/Jochum set – is not listed.

More seriously, some important composers have been dropped entirely. Daquin may not be a household name but he surely warrants inclusion as much as Damase and Darnton (who they?) between whose reviews Daquin should have appeared. His Noëls for organ, which I recently reviewed on a Helios reissue, make for Christmas listening beyond the usual suspects, King’s College et al. The pioneering version of Eccles’ Semele was listed in the last edition at full price. Now it is available at bargain price from Regis, but poor old Eccles has gone completely. (Except, of course, on the BBC’s regular repeats of The Goon Show, where he rightly remains ‘the famous Eccles’.)

Locatelli had a page-and-a-bit in the last edition plus half a page in the Yearbook. Alas, where is he now? Is George Lloyd – attractive music, but hardly first-rate – really worth three pages and Locatelli none? Are four of the CDs of Lloyd’s Symphonies really key repertoire, as they are marked? Are Locatelli’s Concerti Grossi ‘after Corelli’ not worth at least as much as Avison’s Concerti ‘after Scarlatti’, which are mentioned? Don’t throw your copy of the old edition away – there are some (very) important CDs listed there which are still available but not listed in the new version. (Unless they are tucked away somewhere inaccessible: the listings of the various versions of Wagner’s Ring operas are somewhat hard to follow, but I cannot find any mention of the Janowski set, regarded in some quarters as the best modern version and surely preferable to the Naxos/Zagrosek versions, which are listed.)

Full marks to Penguin for keeping the price down to £25, the same as two years ago, though this has partly been achieved by making the cover much more flimsy and less attractive. (The assistant who sold it to me commented on its recycled appearance.) This places it in the same price range as the latest edition of the Gramophone Guide, recently reviewed very favourably here on Musicweb by Ian Lace.

The two guides serve rather different purposes – the Gramophone Guide limiting itself to two or three versions of mostly major repertoire, the Penguin aiming to be more comprehensive. Though it sometimes fails to be comprehensive in ways which I have indicated, the Penguin Guide continues to be a very valuable tool. I expect my copy to look well and truly battered by the time that its successor appears.

Brian Wilson


see also Review by Ian Lace


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