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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.
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on 9 February 2010
It's hard to argue a product with 200 fewer pages than its last edition in 2008 is improved but I am setting out to show why the Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music 2010 is marginally better than its last full edition -- The Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music 2008 -- and why it should be your preferred book to have among the two available that pretend to give you an annual survey of what's good to buy in recorded classical music.

For anyone new to this publication, The Penguin Guide owes its roots to a 1960 publication called the Stereo Record Guide. From there, the three principal authors, Robert Layton, Ivan March and Edward Greenfield, began publishing the Penguin Guide in 1975 with 1,114 pages of reviews. The three continued this process every few years until the past decade or so, when they began to update the book annually. The odd-numbered year books were called yearbooks and they frankly weren't of much use to anyone. Every even-numbered year -- and again in 2010 -- the whole thing is published anew.

Why do I think the book is better in 2010? Even though it cut its pages by more than 200 -- from over 1,300 to just over 1,100 -- it also cut out the portions of the book that added little value. This includes long discussions on the why, where, how and wherefore of the book, its discussion of its author change (there is now a fourth author, Paul Czajkowski), a lengthy chat on downloading, and the entire section on collections. Instead, the book has only about one-half inch of pages (they don't number them) that precede the review section.

Best among those pages, from my perspective, are the four authors listing of their CD of the year (they each list one) and four pages called Foreward to the 2010 Edition. In these four pages, the authors talk about what changed in the industry and, best, the more notable new recordings that emerged. This includes discussion of the rebound of recordings from Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet, DVDs on the work of Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein, the deaths of Vernon Handley and Richard Hickox, emerging superstar conductors Vasily Petrenko and Gianandrea Noseda, new recordings of special interest on keyboard, in chamber music and vocal music formats. This brief discussion is, for me, a big improvement over the 2008 book.

In recent years the Penguin Guide has been criticized for not having much new content. That criticism is fair again this year. However, there are only two books being published annually that do this and the Penguin Guide is far better as a guide for either the experienced collector or the neophyte that its main competitor for one simple reason: it has hundreds more listings in it than the Gramophone Classical Music Guide 2010 -- The "Gramophone" Classical Music Guide 2010.

Because the Gramophone book has almost 300 more pages than the Penguin Guide, this wouldn't seem possible. However, a not very exhaustive comparison of the two books -- which often review the same recordings and come to the same conclusions -- will show anyone that there is far more content in the Penguin Guide than in Gramophone's book. Here is an alphabetical comparison of some composers and selected music I performed 10 minutes before writing this review. It lists the number of reviews in each book for a composer's popular music in both the CD and DVD formats:

Bach Brandenburg Concertos
Penguin Guide 11
Gramophone 10

Beethoven complete symphony sets
Penguin Guide 18
Gramophone 10

Haydn symphonies (both books include the complete sets of symphonies conducted by Antal Dorati and Adam Fischer)
Penguin Guide 56 including complete sets led by Mallon and the Hanover Band.
Gramophone 20

Mozart opera recordings
Penguin Guide 78
Gramophone 40

Rimsky Korsakov Scheherazade
Penguin Guide 14
Gramophone 3

Schubert lieder & song cycles
Penguin Guide 37
Gramophone 33

Verdi operas & highlights
Penguin Guide 151
Gramophone 79

Wagner Ring sets, operas & highlights
Penguin Guide 59
Gramophone 32

The Penguin Guide, with 9,400 listings, has nearly 4,000 more than the Gramophone book. And this isn't new for 2010; it has been the case for as long as the two books have competed for the classical music buyers dollar. Some supporters of the Gramphone book, whose reviews tend to be lengthier (they are copied from what appeared in Gramophones monthly magazine) say it is the relative quality of reviews in the two books that is their defining moments. I don't subscribe to that theory; I believe the book with more content wins the fight. It may, in boxing terms, be a 10 round decision based on points rather than a knockout, but it is nonetheless my decision and I stand by it.

Anyone that really cares about classical music, and buys a lot of recordings, should have both books. I'm not sure they need to update each book annually -- maybe updating them every 4-6 years is better -- but they should be in your reference library. Here are a couple others you should also have:
-- All Music Guide All Music Guide to Classical: The Definitive Guide to Classical Music (All Music Guides). This is more of a musicological book than compendium of reviews but it makes listening recommendations and is full of important information.
-- Third Ear Classical Music Classical Music: Third Ear - The Essential Listening Companion.Even though it was only published once in 2000 and is a decade out of date, the contents of this book are important to any classical music buyer. While wildly inconsistent from composer to composer, this is the only book of its type that made an effort to cover the entire recording industry.
-- The Rough Guide to Classical Music The Rough Guide to Classical Music (Rough Guide Music Guides). This doesn't compete very well with any of these books but it is in the ballpark.
-- Jim Svejda, a disk jockey at a classical music station in California USA, published his book a time or two The Insider's Guide to Classical Recordings: From the Host of the Record Shelf, a Highly Opinionated, Irreverent, and Selective Guide to What's Good and What's Not. It is far more personal than the others and serves as more of a one man guide (albeit out of print and out of date.)
-- Herbert Russcol's book from way back in 1968 is still relevant today even though its more than four decades old Guide to low-priced classical records.

For the rare collector that only wants one book about the industry on his or her shelves, the Pengin Guide to Recorded Classical Music 2010 should be that book. It has the most listings to view, it comes in a more compact format than in 2008, and it runs rings around its only real competitor.
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on 16 November 2009
Tend to agree with other reviews. There is a degree of tiredness and staleness that has entered this work in recent editions. It is still venerable but with the availability of modern technology one has to ask why the layouts aren't more readable and better edited these days. Similarly the profusion of worthwhile up-to-the-minute online review sites (such as musicweb and classicalcdreview etc) mean that at the very least there should have been some attempt to revitalise the amateurish approach of rambling reviews many of them repeated verbatim from the last 5 or 6 or more editions. By contrast the comparable Gramophone Guide for 2010 seems superior in every respect and has concentrated on new issues (or new re-issues) with a small "sidebar" for comparisons or recommendations for standard works where there are worthwhile earlier releases - a general approach which I happen to prefer very much. Gramophone also deals sensibly with digital and downloaded music and seems to be forward looking in a way the Pengiun Guide is not. I once wrote a 5 star review for an earlier penguin guide but three stars is the best I can do for the 2010 guide, alas.
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VINE VOICEon 16 December 2009
BBC Radio 3's CD Review has a feature called 'Building a Library', in which the reviewer listens to most, if not all, current recordings of a piece of music, and choses the 'best', giving his/her reasons. Of course you may not agree with the decision, but you get to hear some sometimes startling differences in approach.

Recently, the subject was Shostakovich's 15th symphony. (A particularly fascinating review).

Right, I thought, let's see how many versions of this symphony the latest Penguin guide lists. Guess how many single-disc versions are listed in the Guide?


Yes, that's right, none.

Not a sausage.

O.K., there are a few listed as parts of complete sets, but there's not one single-disc version listed. Despite there being currently at least 11 single- disc versions readily available in the U.K. Many of those of high quality (Haitink, various Sanderlings, Kondrashin, Pletnev et al).

Last year I wrote how hopeless this once-invaluable Guide was becoming, as so many recordings are left out. I have just picked up on this one example here, not deliberately, but as a genuine point of interest.

This book is now just becoming silly and pointless. I will say it again; Penguin need go to the whole hog and expand it to a two volume set to give any chance of having enough space for it to truly be a 'comprehensive' guide.

Otherwise, just give up.
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on 25 September 2009
Once upon a time, The Penguin Guide was THE guide to classical music on CD, and before that, LP. However, over the last decade, the quality and reliability of the guide have been steadily falling, as the the three main authors - who are not getting any younger - have struggled to keep up with new releases. As a result, many significant new classical issues received either superficial reviews or none at all. The 2010 Guide takes the biscuit: firstly, it has shrunk - it's not the 1600 pages quoted above, but only just over 1300, about 200 fewer than last year. And secondly, the retail price has gone up by a third in a year (and this at a time of deflation in many markets). Even at Amazon's substantial discount, this book is hugely overpriced - go for the Gramophone equivalent instead.
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on 4 January 2010
The first thing that struck me when leafing through this new edition of the Guide was the amount of pages spent on British composers. Since this Guide is a British publication you would expect a certain leaning towards the Brits (in The Netherlands, where I live, more attention is obviously given to Dutch composers than in the rest of the world) but in this publication the bias is taken much too far. For example, about 5 pages are devoted to an important composer like Bartok and the same amount is spent on Arnold Bax and Gustav Holst. Now, I like the music of both these composers but I cannot be persuaded that they are of the same importance as Bartok. Benjamin Britten gets 20 pages, 6 pages more than those dedicated to Robert Schumann and as much as Brahms! Even Edward Elgar has more pages than Schumann.

Of course one has to make a selection from the overwhelming amount of music available on cd, but to leave out (contemporary or 20th century) composers like Nono, Feldman, Golijov, B.A. Zimmerman, Berio, Dallapiccola, Isan Yun, Tan Dun and Thomas Larcher is inexcusable when you do mention (British) composers like Gordon Crosse, Peter Crossley-Holland, Muriel Herbert, Michael Berkely and George Lloyd (3 pages!).

The entries for the music give me the impression that the editors stopped listening to new recordings a while back. For the Beethoven piano sonatas the only recent entry is the (much lauded) cycle by Paul Lewis but no mention of two other interesting cycles by Ronald Brautigam and Andras Schiff. Bach's Sonatas & Partitas only mention the new Julia Fischer cd, no Rachel Podger, Viktoria Mullova, Alina Ibragimova or John Holloway. The most recent Mahler 4 is from 2006 (RPO/Litton). The new (and splendid) recording of Berg's Kammerkonzert (coupled with Mozart's Gran Partita) under Boulez is also missing.

I rate this 2 stars because it is still great fun to leaf through such a vast amount of record reviews. However, since a lot of music from composers I am most interested in is missing and many new recordings are left unmentioned I find this Guide all in all disappointing.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 6 December 2009
For me this Guide still remains THE indispensable starting point for any "consultation" of classical music CDs, particularly the more standard repertoire. Granted, it is no longer as universal as it might have once been, but it would be too much to ask given the proliferation of media and methods of publishing/releasing recorded music. I use this new edition alongside online reviews and blogs to try and get a balance. The inclusion of more DVDs' (of Operas and Concerts) reviews is also very important in this edition. I hope in 2011-12 they start reviewing Blu-Ray releases (and re-releases)of Opera and Concerts.

I know that some reviews have criticised this latest edition, and it makes me wonder what vested interest those who damn it might have, I mean it seems that people get emotive if theirs or their favourite recording isn't included and they take it like a snub. It seems to have become a basic fact of UK blog culture these days if someone is compiling a guide they get the "damned if they do and damned if they don't" brigade on their back without understanding that opinions and reviews are never going to keep everyone happy.

For me, a music lover with no vested interest in this artist or another, nor this label or another, and in terms of the widest and most in-depth coverage of classical music composers and their works (including some very obscure ones), I am of the opinion that it's very difficult to beat this guide. Even the Gramophone guide doesn't include as wide a variety of actual works and pros and cons of as wide a range of recordings of said works. The good thing about the Penguin guide is that regardless of their rating "score" the reviewers do describe pros and cons and therefore a great help for collectors and occasional purchaser alike, to make an informed judgement particularly these days if it's alongside the other sources I have already mentioned earlier in this review.
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on 10 December 2009
As other reviewers have stated, this 2010 edition is shorter and even less up-to-date than previous volumes. Penguin claim it is completely revised ! This claim can be easily disputed. Take for example the entry for Felix Weingartner. It is exactly the same in the 2010 edition as it was in the 2009 edition, which was out-of-date back then, citing the first CPO release 'in this first issue of a projected Weingartner series'. In fact, volumes 2-6 were all released between 2005 and early 2009, making a complete mockery of the 'currentness' of this book. This is merely one example - I could bore you with hundreds of others, but you get the point.

I'm going to use it as a door-stop, as it certainly is not the 'more comprehensive than ever before and now updated annually' reference book that Penguin claim. Save your money and browse through Amazon for buyer reviews. I have been buying this guide for more years than I care to think about. Unless 2011 is dramatically different, I will never buy it again.

02 January 2010 Update to review:

I don't know why pointing out the short comings of this tome should be unhelpful, according to the votes to date. Maybe those who feel this review is not useful would like to enlighten me. It is interesting to note that my review has received a very different response over the pond. RK.
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on 29 October 2009
Well I still give three stars, but only because of the value of what's in this latest edition. I give a max of one star because of what it leaves out, and what it leaves out has increased in leaps and bounds in recent years, rendering the volume of increasingly limited use for any serious music collector. Until a few years ago a very significant chunk of the book was quite rightly devoted to recordings - integral to the overall published discography - which cannot be categorised by composer - eg ensemble/artist specific, themed issues, anthologies etc. For a while the annual yearbook continued to give substantial coverage (eg nearly 300 pages in the 2006/7 book) but as this updating volume seems to have disappeared we have lost - presumably for ever - any commentary from these illustrious critics on these issues. I'll continue to buy it - force of habit really, but the authors must state very clearly what their purpose now is for this erstwhile bible - it's continued claim as a 'Guide to Recorded Classical Music', is a serious misrepresentation. I also agree it is quite disgraceful to us faithful consumers that the overall content has decreased and yet the price has gone up by 25% - how on earth do they rationalise this - and in a period of universal recession to boot? I for one would pay considerably more for a volume (or volumes) provided it genuinely fulfilled its title.
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on 12 January 2010
10. What about those comprehensive, money-saving "portrait" collection box sets (primarily from DG and EMI)? Well, they're not in this book because they take up too much space to list and review. The editors promise to cover them "much more comprehensively in our 2011 edition."

9. "We feel it is useful to draw readers' attention to some [recordings] that hold their places firmly in the pantheon of recorded performances," the editors state, which is apparently why younger performers such as Hilary Hahn and Isabelle Faust (whatever you or I may think of their merits) are largely ignored while the same small list of tried and true names are mentioned over and over again: Heifetz, Menuhin, Grumiaux, Klemperer, Barbirolli, Solomon...Was the last word on Beethoven, Bach, Mozart and Mahler committed to disc forty or fifty years ago?

8. Vocal recitals with music by more than a single composer are ignored (I get the impression that the editors find them just too much trouble to list and review), so goodbye to most opera aria and a great many lieder collections.

7. Why is it that performances on British labels (Hyperion, Chandos) tend to receive higher recommendations than CDs on labels from the rest of Europe, let alone Canada and the U.S.?

6. Why is it that Barenboim, Perlman, Ashkenazy, Karajan, and even Bernstein can do no wrong in these pages?

5. Sometimes the entries read as if they're not even really trying. The glowing "review" of the Zimerman/Rattle Brahms D minor concerto on DG seems to've been based on a blurb from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung about a live concert given shortly before the recording date.

4. There's a lot of excellent music -- fresh, vibrant readings of the chamber and solo repertoire by major composers -- on such microlabels as Accent, Calliope, and Phoenix Edition, not that they're listed in the Penguin Guide.

3. Many of the classical music reviewers on Amazon and Musicweb are doing a much better job of evaluating new releases, so much so that the Penguin Guide is beginning to look like a chummy, largely irrelevant gentlemen's club given over to fond reminiscences of the pre-digital era -- back when there was GOOD music in the classical section of the record shops.

2. The price has gone up by 25%, but the book has 200 fewer pages than last year's edition?!

1. The "Gramophone" Classical Music Guide 2010 is better written, better laid out, easier to read, has useful sidebars comparing versions of many classical warhorses, and it's less expensive -- but the Penguin Guide continues to outsell it.
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