Book Review: 1001 Classical Recordings You Must Hear Before You Die

Written by: Mike Langhorne

1001 Classical Recordings You Must Hear Before You Die

Edited by Matthew Rye

ISBN 978-1-84403-579-3


Published in the UK by Octopus Books

This book comes as part of a series of similar modish titles including “1001 Books to Read Before you Die”, “1001 Films to See Before you Die’ and “1001 Natural Wonders to Visit Before you Die”. It is therefore compiled to a formula to match the others in the series rather than, presumably, fill a perceived need in the market. Indeed, it is a little difficult to see exactly who this tome is aimed at. The classical recording aficionado will be well on the way, already have or be well beyond the magical number. Those vaguely curious about classical music may find the volume, the price and the range of discs on offer more than a little daunting.

However the production values are very high. Allowing that presentation is different in various territories, in the UK at any rate this publication is a soft-back book printed on heavy-duty semi-gloss paper with not far short of 1,000 pages – resulting in a tome weighing in at a hefty 4-and-one-quarter pounds. It is lavishly illustrated in colour and black-and-white, research on illustrations has been well done with many unfamiliar photos of composers and artists, and many of the recommended recordings’ covers are illustrated.

Matthew Rye, the editor, has employed a team of 35 contributors, including himself, to write short articles on numerous works covering several centuries and recommend recordings. Around 275 composers are involved. The more celebrated (though not the more prolific) the composer is then the more works are covered: thus Mozart has thirty-six entries and Darius Milhaud two. The works are listed, fascinatingly, in chronological order. Thus the first listed composer is Abbess Hildegard of Bingen (12th-century) whilst the last is Julian Anderson (born 1967). Some works are accorded two pages (including a full-page illustration) whilst others get a half-page and no illustration. There seems to be no logic to the allocation of space: staying with Mozart and Milhaud, the former’s Le nozze di Figaro gets a half-page whilst Le création du monde runs to two.

The contributors are all well known as reviewers and writers to readers of classical music journals. They can be relied upon to give sensible advice and, in general, their recommendations are sound.

There is a useful composer index at the back (where indexes should be) but a chaotic title indicator at the front. Who would look up Debussy’s piano Études under ‘D’ for Douze or Ponchielli’s opera La gioconda under ‘L’? Paradoxically The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte) is under ‘M’. Another gripe! The spelling has been ‘Americanized’ – thus we get ‘honor’, ‘somber’ and the like. Why? The book is produced by various publishers for different countries and includes a Preface either by cellist Steven Isserlis (in the UK edition) or Philip Carrick.

But one interesting by-product of the chronological listing is the ability to see how works fit into their period – and what cracking years some were. 1924 saw the appearance of such diverse pieces as Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony, Puccini’s Turandot and Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin; and in 1874 came Bruckner’s ‘Romantic’ Symphony (in its Original Version). Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (for piano before Ravel orchestrated it), Bizet’s Carmen, Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus and Verdi’s Requiem. Not bad for one year!

If you want to check your own accumulation of discs against those chosen here or suddenly decide to take up collecting recordings of classical music, this could be the book for you.

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