on 30 January 2013
Like other reviewers, I have a love-hate relationship with the longstanding efforts of the editors of the Penguin Guides to Classical recordings. There are always particular choices they make, and relative evaluations of recordings, where we can disagree with them, as in similar products. There are, however, some uses the previous, larger, Penguin Guides have had, in terms of checking for obvious problems in terms of recorded sound, or serious problems in terms of performance. I would not be as negative about this particular incarnation if it were merely a matter of what recordings I like vis-a-vis the preferences of the authors.
The introduction makes clear that there is an ambiguity about what this much reduced successor to the rather more comprehensive Penguin Guides we are used to is aiming at. It claims to be the 1000 best recordings, but is apparently also the authors' favourite recordings. The tension here has produced a really muddled product.
Arguably, about 10 or 15 years ago at least, the long-standing 'editors' of the guide should have recruited some help, because of (a) the proliferation of recordings on labels beyond the core Decca/ DG/ EMI/ Warner/ Sony/ Hyperion/ Naxos labels which made it difficult for them to remain up to date with new releases and (b) changing tastes, in particular increased interest in music composed prior to 1700 and in the music of the later 20th century and early 21st century. Another editor was recruited, and in a non personalised way, I'd suggest that adding someone interested in British 'light' music of the early to mid 20th century was a big mistake.
The result is predictable, especially when in such a compressed version of the tastes of the editors, the limitations of their strategy become even clearer. I get irritated at non-British assertions of the bias of British critics to British music and British artists, but I have to say this version of the guide is merely adding fuel to their fire. There is apparently nothing, for example, that Janet Baker did do better than anyone else, including Dido and Aeneas, for which we might have expected a more recent and in-tune-with-the baroque recommendation. She was a fantastic artist but still.. Ditto various overenthusiastic recommendations of recent Decca re-releases from Australia - really, on balance, are 1960s recordings of Rameau the best recommendations for music that depends so much on the colour of 18th century instruments and has received so many revelatory recordings on such in the last 3 decades? As other reviewers point out, there are pages and pages devoted to relatively obscure British composers, and to recordings of, for example, 'My Fair Lady' and Noel Coward that are excellent but have arguably no place in a guide like this.
I agree with other reviewers that taking page after page of the guide up on very large box sets of miscellaneous artists or repertoire is not very helpful, especially to newcomers, especially as some of these are special editions that may not be around for long.
It is always interesting to read about a composer one might not have thought much about. Nonetheless, it is very doubtful that some of the recordings of minor, especially British (and Scandinavian), composers featured here could possibly be construed in the big picture as being among the 1000 greatest recordings of all time. Surely there must be some sense, in a guide such as this, of what the really important and pathbreaking music might be, over the centuries and overall. Others have pointed out the absence of a recording of the 'Well-Tempered Clavier'. I have some other examples which to me are equally telling
-Nothing by Guillaume Dufay, the most remarkable composer perhaps before 1600
-No reasonable recommendation for a set of the Beethoven symphonies. I mean, really, does anyone think a DVD set of Karajan conducting these in the 1980s is the most recommendable way of hearing these?
-In the later 20th century, we get some Messiaen, Lutoslawski, Adams, Ades and Birtwistle (the last two presumably included as British), among others. No entries for Cage (!), Boulez, Feldman, Reich, Glass, Ligeti, Rihm, Kagel, Lachenmann, Carter, Harvey, Weir, Schnittke, Gubaidulina, and just about anyone else you can think of in the music of the last 60 years. Xenakis gets included, strangely, in an entry that merely reminds us of the patronising way in which the Guide has tended over the decades to deal with anything post-tonal and new. Ligeti is at least included as a fill-up to a chamber work of Beethoven and what is probably the Horn Trio is described as a masterwork, but seriously, this is an inadequate way of recommending important music to newcomers. As it is increasingly obvious that younger audiences in particular are drawn to recent music, this inability of the editors to respond to it in a generous and timely way is, as it always was, a terrific shame.
I was also annoyed that there wasn't even a recommended recording of an early 20th century masterpiece, Berg's Lulu, but I suspect if I went over the product in more detail there would many more examples of clear masterpieces from various periods passed over in favour of relatively minor works the authors perhaps had a thing about at the moment of compilation.
I really can't recommend this volume, which has become a misrepresentation of what matters in terms of both composers and recordings. I've often thought about reviewing its previous incarnations but persuaded myself that I didn't have the time and it might get better. It hasn't. For the same money, buy a recording of Dufay's Motets or of Cage's Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano instead. Much better spent.