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A guide to guides

Just in time for the holidays, the new updated editions of two standard guides to classical recordings have come thunking across my desk (displacing several tottering stacks of CDs in the process). Neither the Gramophone Classical Music Guide 2010 nor the Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music 2010 is exactly a slim tome. In comparing the two, I am sorely tempted to indulge in the kind of equivocation, praising the strengths of each, in which both volumes specialize: sometimes, reading through the list of recordings, it's hard to figure out exactly which ones are being recommended and why. The main impression you get is that there's a lot of good music out there.
(read more after the jump)

Invariably, there are biases present in such a volume, which can be no more than a rough field guide through the thickets of recorded music on CD, DVD and download. Amusingly, some of the biases overlap in these made-in-England volumes (such a predilection for the recordings of Angela Gheorghiu, to a degree that I don't think is matched in these books' American counterparts). European composers are better represented than American ones, though John Adams gets his due in both books; and both books give room to some "opera in English" recordings that I'm not sure are so popular on this side of the pond.

My evaluation is only superficial; I can't pretend to have read through each book (though my husband and I have amused ourselves for a couple of days with antiphonal reviews, each picking up one of the volumes, immersing ourselves in it, and reading particularly telling or annoying bits out loud, more at than to each other). But my preliminary view is that the Penguin volume is more attractive, better laid out, and has a stronger editorial focus: that is, a better sense of which works are really important in a composer's oeuvre. I also like the format of listing all the recommended recordings of a single piece together, followed by a longer text comparing all the recordings; though admittedly this leads to choppy, checklist-like prose.

The Gramophone volume offers more information, including, helpfully, indexes of both composers and performers (a feature that alone gives it a strong edge over the Penguin volume). However, some names in the text are not listed in the index, and some index listings are red herrings, leading to pages where the promised name does not appear. (There's other evidence of sloppy editing in an error in alphabetical order: Dusapin is listed after Dutilleux; but at least Dusapin is included. In the Penguin volume, he is not; Dussek is there instead). Another helpful feature are side bars with lists of recommendations of particularly popular works, but these, too, are confusing, since their recommendations don't always dovetail with the main body of the text.

For all of its sloppiness, the Gramophone guide is also much better written than the Penguin guide, with longer and more substantive texts, including brief introductions to many individual composers (though printed in an italic font that is challenging to the eyes). The Penguin guide condenses its reviews by and large to one or two paragraphs, and thus has a tendency to lapse into boilerplate. Furthermore, the Gramophone guide appears to be more inclusive of living and recent composers (George Crumb, Magnus Lindberg, Kaija Saariaho, Erki-Sven Tüür make the Gramophone, but not the Penguin cut; though Penguin includes David Del Tredici and Gramophone does not).

I'm startled at my own conclusion, since after looking at the Gramophone guide's opera recommendations, and then finding all the copyediting errors, I was ready to dismiss it out of hand. But no book like this is going to be completely adequate for everyone, and of these two, the Gramophone guide comes out ahead, making up through intelligence and range what it lacks in focus and production values.

By Anne Midgette  |  November 24, 2009; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  random musings  
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I am a Penguin devotee, mostly because I have enough experience with the guide to tell which kinds of boilerplate indicate that a recording is one I will enjoy. Also I mentally correct for the biases towards certain conductors. If I started with Gramophone, I'd have to learn a whole new set of boilerplates and biases!

Posted by: Lindemann777 | November 24, 2009 9:08 AM | Report abuse

As far as I am concerned, the most interesting recommendations for recordings come not from the guides - which can be useful when looking for new repertorie for example - but from discussions by fellow music lovers. This doesn't mean that every review posted on Amazon can be trusted, but there are Internet discussion forums in which the best contributors give intelligent opinion about their listening experience (the reverse about these forums is the worst contributors but let's not go there.)

One example is a music-loving friend who insisted that I should get to know the work of Klaus Tennstedt, conductor who I never got a chance to hear live. Indeed, following his advice, when I went in September to Japan I purchased a CD that I already talked about here (contains a Tokyo concert of Bruckner's 4th and Schubert 8th) and it's a candidate for my CD of the year. Of course, this means that now I must buy more Tennsted CDs, but that's OK when the music-making is great.

Perhaps other contributors here can recommend some of their favorite CDs as well.

BTW, which are the American counterparts of the Gramophone Classical Music Guide 2010 and/or the Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music 2010? I am aware of publications that review recordings such as Fanfare and American Record Guide (ARG), but as far as I know none of them edit a yearly guide like Penguin and Gramophone do. Yes, critics do choose their favorite recordings of the year and ARG has in every number an overview (Shostakovich in the current issue) but, unless I am mistaken, that's about it.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | November 24, 2009 1:55 PM | Report abuse

I keep the Penguin Guide in the bathroom to provide easy quick reads. I am not going to keep a laptop in the bathroom. But good point about online reviews.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | November 24, 2009 4:33 PM | Report abuse

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