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.
November 24, 2009; 8:00 AM ET
Categories: random musings
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