Top positive review
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Flawed, but still probably essential for the serious collector..
on 1 January 2010
The "Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music" has been in print in various forms since 1975 when both its purpose and format (which have since remained basically unchanged) were established. It is probably the premier guide in this field. However its numerous shortcomings have become more apparent over time and it has received a number of highly critical reviews on Amazon of late from experienced collectors. There are some other guides which provide a similar function: the "Gramophone Classical Music Guide" (the long time major alternative), to a more limited extent, "1001 Classical Music Recordings You Must Hear Before You Die" and lastly, "Classical Music: Third Ear - The Essential Listening Companion" (not current).
Since 1975 both the recorded classical repertoire and the number of individual recordings have grown immensely. So any guide is forced to be selective both with regard to the repertoire covered and the number of individual recordings reviewed. Selection is a problem. What is the repertoire anyway? It can be very frustrating if the piece you are interested in is recorded but not included in the guide you are using. In addition the Guide reviews "current" recordings but new recordings are appearing all the time, older recordings previously unavailable become available again and second hand copies of deleted recordings in excellent condition can be readily obtained, so the phrase "currently available" has little relevance to many of us. However the Penguin Guide sets about its task in reviewing new classical CDs, in reality what most collectors are seeking is a) an assessment of new recordings of classical music they are interested in and/or b) a comparison of existing and older recordings of a particular work so they can acquire the most worthwhile version or versions depending on price etc.
The "Guide" doesn't fully achieve the first objective (a) although recordings by "major" artists on the whole are well represented as well as budget recordings such as Naxos and wherever the authors feel a recording has merit. One might generously assume that the authors have reviewed others but have excluded them on various grounds. The only fully reliable place for ongoing review remains the "Gramophone Magazine" (in the UK at least) along with Web sources such as MusicWeb International etc.
In any particular edition (issued annually) the "Penguin Guide" also only provides only a snapshot as far as "b" is concerned. Most serious classical collectors will need to have, or will already have, guides for more than one year to get adequate coverage both of recordings issued within the current period as well as adequate coverage of all corners of the "repertoire". The latter is not treated absolutely evenly from edition to edition. Its sometimes very frustrating with works and composers disappearing and reappearing in subsequent editions. Nevertheless with some reservations, the coverage of the classical music field is generally excellent with in-depth attention on the canonical repertoire and the output of major composers. Contemporary music is also well served. The authors generally do review the major recordings of the core repertoire and their judgement and experience is evident. Of course artistic judgements can always be taken issue with and seasoned users of this Guide will be aware of minor preferences and prejudices, in particular in respect of certain artists.
One major problem with the "Penguin Guide" is that each "edition" carries over a great deal (60-70%?) of its content from the previous one. You can read the same assessments in editions years apart. While the authors naturally include their previously written assessments of recordings when they are still available, if you buy this Guide regularly your get diminishing returns for your money. Given this fact the high price of the Guide seems excessive and the frequent use of the claim that its "completely revised", slightly misleading as others here have said. I think the problem with the Penguin Guide is that its trying to cover objectives "a" and "b" - it needs to be issued annually to achieve "a" but that means if you bought it for "b" you don't need it again for some time. I recommend buying it every three years if you find the price too high.
The truly serious classical collector will want to have the "Gramophone Classical Music Guide" to hand as well. It is less comprehensive but it takes another view of this huge field and is especially valuable for its "in brief" comparisons of versions of key works and it has a clearer layout as well. As a collector of some 30 years I find I need both this and the Penguin Guide but that the latter, although flawed, in some form or another is indispensable.
The "1001 Classical Music Recordings You Must Hear Before You Die" is also an interesting attempt to pinpoint 1001 key works and the best recordings of each but of necessity the judgements in a work like this are a trifle arbitrary and selective although the coverage of contemporary works is good and the notes very interesting. Some of the recordings selected as "best" are clearly individual choices and in no way represent a consensus although alternatives are given in some cases. Where there are no choices it is clearly an absurdity to pinpoint the "best" recordings of the great works of the repertoire. There is simply no such thing. There is a real need for a guide that actually does this whole job properly, putting aside the question of what is actually currently available, and simply assessing the best of the whole recorded legacy for each major work of the repertoire up to a fixed date. Then supplements could be issued annually. One day a publisher or website may undertake this.. perhaps...
If you can get hold of a copy there is a very useful publication, "Classical Music: Third Ear - The Essential Listening Companion" which was a very good attempt to do something along these lines in 2002. It runs to over 1200 pages and surveys the best recordings across the whole classical field. The approach is to survey the recorded legacy for each composer and their major works from the birth of recorded music to date. So when considering the Mahler symphonies for example, it discusses all the major interpretations from Bruno Walter onwards, not necessarily paying particular attention to whether a recording is currently available or not. Some parts of the repertoire are skated over a bit (e.g. Liszt piano music) but the coverage is generally very good, especially where the number of recordings for a work is substantial. One thing I like is that the reviewers aren't afraid to state their opinions forcefully or to be critical of recordings by artists generally otherwise highly regarded. It makes for a lively read! Although 9 years old now its worth consulting if you are investigating a new composition and you don't want to miss out on a great recording just because its not flavour of the month in the Penguin or Gramophone guides.