Feature Review – The Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music 2008

Written by: Mike Langhorne

The Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music 2008

Paul Czajkowski, Edward Greenfield, Robert Layton & Ivan March

Edited by Ivan March

ISBN 978-0-1410-3336-5

£25.00 [Stated Retail Price]

With a mighty thump “The Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music 2008” lands on my doormat. Virtually the size of two house bricks with 1,588 pages and over 12,000 listings and continuing to represent the thoughts of the long-serving mighty-trio of Edward Greenfield, Robert Layton and Ivan March (plus, new for this edition, contributions from Paul Czajkowski) on all that is best in recorded classical music.

It is difficult to believe that we are nearing the 50th-anniversary of this august tome, but, in its original format of “The Stereo Record Guide”, at a mere 316 pages, it first hit the bookshops in 1960. How things have changed. In the 1960 Guide there are NO recordings of Mahler symphonies reviewed. In the new edition, there are, of course, dozens. The sheer number of issues currently being released is astounding – and gives the lie to Norman Lebrecht’s apocalyptic pronouncements about meltdown in the classical recording industry. In fact things have never been more exciting with many new labels issuing material – orchestras, artists, concert halls and many small companies are now providing us with a cornucopia of excellent material including long-deleted ‘out of copyright’ recordings. How to cope with this avalanche must have been a sore problem for the contributors to the 2008 edition.

Presentationally the latest Guide is superb. A very readable typeface has been used and artists’ names have been emboldened within the text. The layout, as in previous editions, is alphabetically by composer and then by orchestral works, chamber music, piano and, finally, vocal and opera. The contributors have decided to add a further valuation to their roster – there are now awards of four stars to indicate “music-making in which artists are inspired to excel even their own highest standards”. In addition “Key Recordings” are noted (with a symbol and the title boxed) and Rosettes continue to be awarded on a personal basis by each contributor. SACDs and DVDs are also covered. Music on the fringes of the classical repertoire is not ignored entirely. There are limited entries for the likes of Jerome Kern, Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers and film music is covered desultorily, Leonard Bernstein’s is in, Elmer Bernstein’s is not. Waxman and Korngold get a mention but the total omission of Bernard Herrmann’s music, even his non-cinematic works, mystifies me. Surely there must be something of his currently in the catalogue.

Generally the views are sound and concisely set out, though often harking back to the very beginnings of stereo LP to make recommendations of ‘key’ recordings. Is Szell’s recording of Kodály’s “Háry János” Suite still unsurpassed, one wonders, and is the Rostropovich/Karajan Dvořák Cello Concerto worth the battery of Rosettes and Stars it is awarded? Is the ‘accidental stereo’ for Elgar’s recording of his Cockaigne Overture included in the Naxos Historical issue really “highly controversial”? The booklet note explains how it was achieved and you don’t have to play it if you don’t want to.

That’s what you get. What you don’t get are recordings the contributors do not regard as the “cream of the repertoire” i.e. nearly all two-star recordings. Given the sheer scale of the exercise this is sensible, but it does lead to a rather wearying catalogue of excellence – it would have been more realistic to warn readers off recordings they cannot recommend – the odd panning would have leavened the mixture somewhat. Also omitted are mixed-composer vocal and instrumental recitals. You will look in vain for recitals by your favourite artist if they perform more than one composer’s music.

Errors and omissions – I have not gone out of my way to provide a catalogue of mistakes and disappearances – no doubt there are some: it would be amazing in a project of this size if there weren’t. I’ll just mention the Brahms Second Symphony that Stokowski apparently recorded a year after his death and the failure to include the excellent Chandos/Richard Hickox series of Frank Bridge’s orchestral works. The ‘one-composer’ rule also results in the omission of the notable “Original Masters” boxed-sets from Universal featuring, among others, Martinon, Ansermet, Ricci, Curzon, Rosbaud, Haskil, Markevitch and Kubelík.

Given the eminence and experience of the contributors, who all pursue writing careers at the cutting edge of the recorded classical music industry, readers can, despite a few minor misgivings, overwhelmingly rely on the opinions proffered within this book. As a comprehensive reference it is unrivalled. Long may it continue!

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