The Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music has long been hailed by book critics as “…a CD collectors Bible.” It is, without doubt, the easiest and most comprehensive one-volume survey of classical music on compact discs available today. Authors Ivan March, Edward Greenfield Robert Layton, and Paul Czajkowski combine over 120 years of experience as musicians, composers, and professional music critics to provide short but authoritative reviews of what they consider the best and worst in recorded classical music, from the standpoint of performance, CD sound quality, and cost.
At the outset, a word of explanation is in order concerning how the Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music is published. The book, which began as the annual Stereo Record Guide in the early 1960s and had evolved into The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs by the mid 1990s, had been published in a sort of cycle (fully revised main volume one year, followed by “yearbooks” the next two years), due to the rapidly increasing number of classical CDs which flood the market throughout the world each year. Beginning in the late 2000s, new editions of the main volume, containing the most comprehensive listing of all classical composers and their music, were released every year.
My first experiences with the Penguin Guide date back to 1996, when I was living in the United Kingdom. My interest in classical music had been renewed, and had become a passion. By the time I left the UK for good in 1997, I had collected the 1996 main edition of the The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs, the 1997 yearbook, and the 1998 Penguin Guide to Bargain Compact Discs. After my return to the United States, I relied on those venerable editions, adding the 2004 and 2009 edition (renamed by then Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music) to my Penguin Guide library.
Here are the features, common to all these volumes, which I like best and consider most useful:
Comprehensiveness: The Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music is about as comprehensive and complete as any classical music collector could ask! Not only do the authors include the greatest of the great composers – Monteverdi, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Strauss, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Schonberg, and others- and all their works still in the performing and recording repertory, but most of the lesser known composers whose works are still being regularly recorded as well.
Organization: The authors have taken great pains to ensure that the Penguin Guide is very well organized and user-friendly. Composers are listed in strict alphabetical order, with no attention to the era in which they lived. Each composer’s works are listed in a specific order, as prescribed by The Classical Catalogue, a standard British listing of classical music. Orchestral works (symphonies, concertos, and other works performed by full orchestras) listed first, followed by chamber music, and then vocal music, including opera, oratorios, and stage music. Individual recordings are generally listed in alphabetical sequence within a particular genre. Beginning with the 2009 edition, the authors began highlighting what they consider as “key” recordings of each listing. Those listings are surrounded by a light gray box and have a key icon next to them.
Each entry also gives the reader information on the price range of the CD under evaluation. Medium, bargain, and super-bargain priced CDs are so indicated by (M), (B), and (BB), respectively. This is an especially useful feature, since the authors consider value for money to be an important factor in the overall rating they give each CD.
The book’s outstanding organization makes it easy for the user to flip to a certain composer and look up a particular recording according to type of music.
Quality of Writing and Accuracy of Evaluations: The authors’ reviews are very well written indeed! Their writing contains a bit of that traditional British reserve, so the reviews, while interesting and entertaining, are not particularly lively; however, each review succinctly makes its point as to the overall quality of the performance and the recording.
Easy to Understand Rating System: Over the years, the Penguin Guide’s authors traditionally used a three-star rating system, with three stars normally considered best, two stars average, and one star substandard. Beginning in 2009, the Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music added a four-star rating to highlight the most exceptional recordings in each listing.
On very rare occasions, the authors award a “rosette” – a special symbol – to recognize recordings of very special merit or accomplishment. Through the years, I have found the authors’ collective judgment to be completely objective, fair, and unerringly accurate. I have been especially pleased by the “rosette” recordings which I’ve purchased; I now own 30 of them, and they are indeed recordings of very special distinction!
Since 1996, I have relied almost exclusively extensively on Penguin Guide recommendations to build my classical music library, which now contains over 300 CDs. I can honestly say I have never been disappointed in the quality or value of those CDs which I’ve purchased based on a Penguin Guide recommendation.
In recent years, the Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music has become an increasingly large and heavy volume running to over 1,600 pages of small double-column print. That attests, I think, to the authors’ attempt to maintain the book’s comprehensiveness. In that endeavor, they are largely successful.
The Penguin Guide is not without its critics, however. A small but growing chorus of consumer reviewers cites the authors’ bias toward British/European performers, and a perceived lethargy that has crept into the most recent editions. The first argument has some merit, but the second, I think, is unfounded. Throughout the years, the authors have maintained a writing style that’s succinct, occasionally witty, acerbic at times, and always entertaining.
MY VERDICT: I highly recommend The Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music. It isindeed the best resource available today to all classical music collectors.