The Penguin Guide: 30 Years On

Written by Colin Anderson

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For many people, The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs & DVDs is regarded as a bible of sound advice (no pun intended) regarding best buys. The latest edition, for 2005/6, celebrates 30 years of this bookshelf tome. The triumvirate of collaborators—Edward Greenfield, Robert Layton, and Ivan March—is each a household name. (And Denis Stevens has his place, too; he went on to pursue activities in America, allowing Robert Layton to join the Penguin team.)
First of all, a word or two about the current threesome, the writers behind the Penguin Guide. Edward Greenfield (Ted, E.G.) was for 40 years a contributor to the Guardian, and remains writing for Gramophone and is also a broadcaster. Robert Layton (Bob, R.L.) studied with Edmund Rubbra and Egon Wellesz, was a music producer for the BBC and a broadcaster in his own right; he is an author, a contributor to numerous magazines, and is an acknowledged expert on Scandinavian music. Ivan March (I.M., would you believe!) is the Penguin Guide’s editor. Formerly a professional horn player, Ivan March also writes for Gramophone and co–ordinates his Penguin colleagues’ opinions. Gathered together in Edward Greenfield’s London home in November 2005 (the month of issue for the latest issue of the Penguin Guide), with assistant editor Paul Czajkowski (P.C.) also present, I invited these lively personalities to be informal and anecdotal. There now follows edited highlights of a very enjoyable couple of hours talking about music and recordings.

C.A.: Congratulations on 30 years, gentlemen; does this speak of a good friendship?
E.G.: Absolutely. Couldn’t be happier.
I.M.: We used to meet at the Waldorf Hotel for afternoon tea, and then we got more friendly and started having lunch.
E.G.: The amazing thing was there never was any argument as to who does what.
I.M.: It is clear what those two want to do, and I do I lot of things that no one wants to do. Bach organ music, for example, so I took it on. And that’s been good. Before Penguin there was a hardback called The Stereo Record Guide, that’s when Ted and I first met, and we found that we had this astonishing agreement on our approach to music and sound; that made a very sound basis for the book. We both had the same Capital Stereo reproducer…
E.G.: That was donated by EMI, just before stereo came out. Those speakers were amazing. We’re talking about 1959, 1960…
I.M.: Yes, that’s right, 1960, when we started with the hardback.
C.A.: That was my next question, thank you! So the Stereo Record Guide ran and ran?
I.M.: Yes, it ran from 1960 and there were nine volumes altogether, the ninth dealt entirely with concerts and recitals, and in the mid-seventies Penguin took it over. Previously we’d done these guides to bargain records; they were from Penguin as well, so the first Penguin Guide was the summation of the key records out of those eight volumes.
C.A.: There are now so many reissues, and CD has developed composers new to the catalogue; how do you keep on top of it all?
E.G.: We do what we can!
I.M.: I don’t think there’s too much missed out. For each new book I get manufacturers’ lists and go through every one; it doesn’t mean they won’t disappear afterwards, but at the time of going to press it’s accurate. We’ve got a Yearbook [for late 2006].
E.G.: The Yearbook has various advantages not least for including the recitals that have been excluded from the main volume and we can write at rather greater length, so that makes it a different sort of read.
C.A.: So who does what?
I.M.: Paul, who is marvelous, and I really do it and go through the releases; this is for Bob, only Bob will do this. Ted inevitably does opera, although if it’s Scandinavian then it’s for Bob, and some of the Russian ones, too. Paul is very keen on operetta, so he’s been doing that.
R.L.: I’ve done the Russians largely because I still buy recordings; I bought all those Kirovs as Laserdiscs, which is now an obsolete medium, so I was able to contribute those when they appeared on DVD.
I.M.: We don’t have many disagreements, but if there is one, then it’s often in the field of opera. One of the most interesting was a DVD of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Solti conducting, where his recording is dubbed into the film. Ted and I both loved it, but Robert didn’t like it because he found the acoustic unconvincing…
R.L.: Generally speaking I don’t like productions that are set in the outdoors.
I.M.: If someone finds something unconvincing then we put it in the text.
E.G.: One of our basic philosophies is that we want to explain how to enjoy a recording; we want to encourage people to have their own opinions and not just to copy ours. Sometimes you have to explain different approaches without praising or condemning any one way.
C.A.: Hence it being called Guide.
E.G.: That’s right.
C.A.: The reviews in the Guide are not credited; does any one recording need a three way agreement to get in?
E.G.: We leave it to Ivan.
I.M.: If there’s a disagreement then I’ll rewrite the whole review and put the disagreements in. Readers love that! Sibelius is Bob’s area, but he’s also key repertoire and Ted might have heard something that he’s bowled over by. Ted likes performances of vigor and spontaneity, and I’m not saying Bob doesn’t, but refinement means a great deal to him. Is that fair?
R.L.: Well, yes, but I like spirited things as well; I think tonal refinement is something I appreciate.
I.M.: Sometimes Bob says this is the best recording we’ve had for many years, except in the last book he said that about another recording! So I have to get round that; I’m not sure either of them reads the book right through!
C.A.: The latest Penguin looks a particularly impressive tome. The biggest so far?
I.M.: Oh yes, eleven and a half thousand listings, I counted them all, and the first Guide was four and a half thousand. DVD has changed the world of opera; it’s just fascinating what’s coming out.
E.G.: It’s ironic that when CD came in, we thought they’d only record the New World Symphony and Beethoven’s 5th; we wouldn’t have any rarities, but it’s been quite the opposite, there’s more rarities than were ever on LP.
R.L.: But the problem with CDs is that there not tactile; I loved LPs.
C.A.: Yes, there’s still something about LPs; I love them, too. Do you chaps still play them?
I.M.: Robert still plays 78s!
E.G.: I have 30,000 LPs in the cellar.
C.A.: You know, I’m not sure that the digital era has quite captured the bloom and warmth that was, and is, apparent on analog, whether original or re–cut LPs.
E.G.: Decca had a very strong principle that everything had to be down to two channels; I think you got an extra sense of presence and realism.
C.A.: Do you notice as I do that those engineers that try to take off too much hiss or crackle from analog material for CD issue are also guilty of contaminating the true tones of the music itself?
R.L.: You can say that again!
E.G.: But there are some wonderful ones, too.
R.L.: The people who do it properly have to really listen to what they do.
C.A.: Indeed, it seems that you can buy a cheap program, add it to your computer, let it do its worst and send it out, which is no way to treat recordings of the past. Going back to the Guide, when you award a Rosette, does that require all three of you agreeing?
E.G.: No, it’s individual. Ivan awards more than I do!
I.M.: They’re not all mine!
E.G.: Not all, no!
I.M.: Remember that I have all the reissues to deal with, and there are lots of wonderful records. We have to be careful, though, because manufacturers quote the Rosette.
C.A.: Was the decision not to credit individual reviews taken early on?
E.G.: It’s stronger because we all approach the review in a constructive way. If we were destroyers, in the way that so many critics are, there would be more disagreement between us, but we agree to see what enjoyment we can get from each issue; of course, if there’s something radically wrong, we’ll point it out. Ivan, you were talking about DVDs…
I.M.: I’m amazed with the numbers of issues. Amazing! The opera ones that are particularly successful are from Verona. I was talking about Maria Chiara, she sings Aida, and it’s a good recording.
C.A.: If DVD is great for opera and ballet, it is perhaps less so for recitals and orchestral concerts; some directors are too clever with their angles…
E.G.: Yes, very busy…
R.L.: Three seconds and then another angle. Have you seen the Berezovsky Liszt recital? Wonderful artist, but you don’t want to watch it. So much perspiration!
C.A.: Oh, yes, that French series, the camera going round in circles, this angle, then that angle. Music is about listening, yes?
E.G., R.L., I.M.: Yes!
I.M.: There’s a particularly good DVD of Mozart Piano Quartets; the camera angles are nicely chosen. It can be done!
C.A.: You don’t want the camera in the way.
I.M.: That’s right.
C.A.: There are so many ways of hearing music today—from the Internet, MP3, and lots more. Does this easy way of listening worry you?
E.G.: It depends if people want to sit at their computer listening, and I don’t think they do. I’ve always said that CD will go on for the indefinite future and I believe that also people want the original format.
C.A.: But we know there’s an art to listening, sitting in your front room listening through speakers; we know about it and we write about it, but there are now bits of symphonies and one can take music anywhere and use it for any occasion.
E.G.: Treating music as background is anathema to me. I hate it. Putting music on while people talk: for heaven’s sake, no.
I.M.: I would rather go to a concert, sit there and concentrate; I prefer live music to any kind of record.
C.A.: As we’ve said, CD has brought many rarities. What stands out for each of you?
R.L.: For me it was Tubin. He’s a strong composer and I never dreamt I would get to hear all his symphonies.
E.G.: A composer I have come to increasingly enjoy is Hummel. He was renowned for his piano music, but the choral music is a real discovery. Zelenka is another one.
I.M.: Heinrich Biber is an incredible composer. And Buxtehude. Both have been a revelation to me. And Vivaldi’s sacred music.
C.A.: Do you get feedback from the Guide’s readers?
I.M.: Yes, lovely letters, especially if there’s a mistake! People write in the nicest possible way. They keep the book in the lavatory and by their bedside.
P.C.: One of the strengths of the Guide is that it doesn’t rely on advertising at all. You don’t have to pander to anyone. All magazines come under pressure simply because they rely on advertisements from record companies. I’m not saying there’s anything corrupt, not anything like that, but it’s nice that the Guide can go against the grain of accepted classics. It’s not a black and white book; it allows you to choose the performance you want.
C.A.: And includes far more diverse repertoire than you ever encounter in concerts.
R.L.: But the repertoire played in the concert hall has shrunk even more…
I.M.: …and concerts are such poor value, they rarely play an overture these day. I get angry about that, all those wonderful overtures…
E.G.: …record collectors are far more adventurous. I count it as the greatest privilege to be able to do what I have always wanted to do: to write about one’s own joy in music, sharing; I am always touched when people write to me. I wanted to do it because I found so many reviews wildly inaccurate. We’re very keen here on comparisons.
I.M.: And interpretation. Although I have never been a record collector—you go to Ted’s and Robert’s and you can’t get in the door for records—I have always been fascinated by interpretation; that’s been the great thing for me. But I must say this. Over the years we have had criticism that the Guide is pro–European and anti–American. This is less pertinent now that there are so many reissues of great American recordings, but we do have a problem, I think, and I will honestly say this, that American engineering of records has never been, on average, as good as European engineering: you have this up–front effect that even if they are re–mastered with more warmth, and often they can do this now, and consequently so many of our American reviews level three stars minus rather than three stars simply because of the balance of the sound. We reflect this in our review; some great performances suffer from the engineering not being worthy of them, so they don’t often get to the top. But if you read the text, we often say the performance is marvelous. We don’t consciously praise recording, but I have to say that it’s something the Brits do very well: the engineering and the balancing.
C.A.: But the CBS LPs probably didn’t do justice to the original sound?
E.G.: Oh, no! Mind you, Szell got better recording than the people in New York. There was a chap called Bud Graham, who I met, very nice chap, but everything was up–front. A lot of the Szell things came out on Columbia, and those transfers were more refined, weren’t they?
R.L.: They were, and warmer.
I.M.: It’s wonderful to still have access to the mono era; you now realise what superb recordings they made then, DG for example.
E.G.: Yet when DG went from mono to stereo there was a distinct falling off…
I.M.: …some of their mono piano records are coming out again and you realise how good they were…
E.G.: …you could argue that Kempff’s Beethoven cycle is better in mono than in stereo…
I.M.: …what a player!

Robert glances at his watch and makes a move to leave.

R.L.: This has been a very enjoyable get together, some real reminiscences. We know why we’re here!
C.A.: Yes, I have felt at home, and it’s certainly been great for me. To end, could I ask if we have too much music?
E.G.: Quite obviously, we do have too much music, which means you have to be selective; that’s why you need the Guide!

So Ted gets his plug in! (“That’s why I said it!”) It had, indeed, been a most convivial time. Ted’s front room didn’t lack for CDs—in fact I had used a pile of them to place my tape recorder on—and after coffee Ted opened a particularly agreeable bottle of red wine. Sitting around the friendly warmth of a coal fire, I had the distinct feeling that all three gentlemen, although senior figures now, remain in fine fettle and that music is still a passion. Ernest Ansermet crept into the picture at some stage during this lunchtime assignation, and it was gratifying to hear my own admiration for this conductor being echoed, as well as a welcome independence of view and flexibility: on its first release, some 40 years ago, Ted reviewed Ansermet’s Decca Beethoven Symphony No. 4, “I thought it would be awful, but it was wonderful.” It is, too. I nominate my favorite “Eroica” as George Szell’s Cleveland version; Robert Layton goes for Weingartner. And so on!
We go our separate ways. I stroll back to the nearest station with Ivan, sharing anecdotes; it’s amazing what the memory stores away regarding music itself, particular performances, and the musical flotsam and jetsam that we all acquire over the years and plunder at will. And you can’t beat enthusiasm and experience.

  • Penguin
  • The above article was written for Fanfare and appeared in the March/April 2006 issue and is reproduced with the Editor’s permission
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