INKPOT#40 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: Book Review – Penguin Guide to Compact Discs Yearbook 1997/98

Penguin Guide to CDs Yearbook 1997/98

The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs

Yearbook 1997/98

by Ivan March (ed.)

Edward Greenfield and

Robert LaytonPenguin Books Ltd (duh…)

softcover, 715 pages

23.4cm x 15.2cm x 2.8cm

Published 1997

ISBN 0-14-051381-7

by Chia Han-Leon

The remarks in this review can generally be applied

to any recent edition of the Penguin Guide.

Every year I buy this book (yes, I’m a sucker for punishment) I ask the same questions: 1) Why do they still call it the “Penguin Guide to CDs” and not the “Penguin Guide to Classical CDs”? 2) What new composers will I encounter this year? 3) Which of my favourite CDs have been rosetted/slimed? 4) Which of my most hated CDs have been given a sainthood? 5) What more horrors will I discover in the Bach and Sibelius sections?; and also 6) How does the British Bias look this year?

Penguin 1999/2000Penguin! Penguin! The Penguin Guide to (Classical) Compact Discs 1999-2000 is out (pub. Nov 1999)!

Weighing in at a hefty 1600 pages in paperback, it comes in a 2-column per page format and sports tons of new reviews. ISBN: 0-140-51379-5

Ah yes, all except the first were answered. The Penguin Guide is famous and infamous for many reasons. First of all, the authors really should be commended for even attempting the epic task of collecting and providing reviews and information on the huge number of classical CDs out there. It is an important and difficult job, both for the writers and especially the readers. The former’s work in the current volume ends after publication. The reader is given the love-to-hate job of wondering whether or not to trust what they say!


The Penguin Guide is published yearly, alternating with the main volume and the yearbook. E.g., a 1995 main (big) volume, a 1996 (smaller) Yearbook of new reviews, of which the “best of” were included with new reviews in the 1997 1598-page main volume. For 1999, the authors have published the Penguin Guide to Budget CDs, collecting their reviews for CDs up to mid-price.

The 1998 Yearbook thus consists of mostly new reviews (relative to the main volume). However, as it is also intended as a stand-alone (partly to aid sales, of course), the “best” recommendations are included, even if they are old reviews from previous editions.

Hence, the new Yearbook also includes abridged reviews from a top 500 “best buys” list, selected by Ivan March. These are indicated by an incredibly clumsy symbol comprising of a small bold “500” digit followed by a treble clef. Not surprisingly, many of these “ISO-500” recordings are rosetted, which makes for some really cluttered entries in the lists. By the way, the rosette is a little flower symbol, awarded to unique and “magical” CDs, the ones that you are supposed to kill for.

Reviews are written in an informal style, rarely technical. The writers often make a very commendable effort to introduce the composer and works – something I am extremely grateful for. Although comparisons are made between CDs, contexts change every year and sometimes exactly which CD is recommended becomes unclear. Sometimes in fact, the reviews are downright undiscerning, saying a CD is good without explaining why – these are the dangerous reviews.

As always, take everything with a large dose of salt and watch the authors’ perspectives. Sometimes they may focus on an aspect of a performance which you do not care for, eg. rhythmic resilence, scholastic details of interpretations, etc. You may enjoy a recording for reasons which they may not highlight (or notice?), while they criticize the same recording for reasons you aren’t bothered by.

Seeing ***s

Recordings are rated with stars/asterisks (*) – fairly misleading since any quantitative attempt at measuring art is by nature inconsistent. This is shown by reviews which praise but do not complain and are rated ** or **(*) and reviews which have reservations and yet are rated ***. In addition, 3-star reviews got really ubiquitous throughout the years, becoming meaningless. The last two editions of the Guide, however, does seem to attempt to correct this.

The bracketed stars is another really confusing phenomenon. It basically means half a star but that can be because of technical, non-musical considerations such as poor recording. So that’s like a full star with reservations, I think. My advice: glance at the stars, forget them and read the text. Some **(*)s are actually supposed to be better than the ***s.

Do note that pricing categories and policies vary from country to country. Full-price in UK far exceeds full-price in Singapore. A mid-priced CD in UK can cost around £8-9 or more, which is about full-price in Singapore. Take these categories only as a guide.

Like the Gramophone Classical Good CD Guide, there are the inevitable mistakes in the Penguin: A serious example is the Virgin Veritas CDs, which are a total mess – many Veritas Edition CDs are marked as full-price where they should be mid-priced. Just look under Dufay (p.139) then turn the page and look under Dunstable.

Some full-priced Veritas CDs (code VC), eg. Mendelssohn Octet (p.257), are described as mid-priced, and further recommended for that! Many mid-priced Veritas CDs (code VER) are described as mid-priced, but their entries do not have the all-important (M) sign! Eg. Bach gamba sonatas (p.17). Now, it may be that by some odd pricing policy unknown to me, these are correct in the UK, but be very careful with these indications elsewhere! (My ‘corrections’ apply to prices in Singapore.)

The Feast of Fools?

After the main section of reviews sorted by composer comes the Penguin’s most irritating-to-search section: compilations. Goodness knows why is it the writers don’t provide an index to this confusing section, made all the more confusing by their simplistic categorization of the reviews into “Collections”, “Concerts of Orchestral and Concertante Music”, “Instrumental Recitals” and “Vocal Recitals and Choral Collections.”

Problems arise, for example, when a collection includes say, a single artist’s recital of solo works, chamber works and concertos. Where does this go? Emil Gilel’s Melodiya Edition, for example, with 4 of 5 discs filled with solo piano music, is placed under “Concerts of Orchestral and Concertante Music” while three discs of Baroque orchestral music (one has a single aria) from the DG Codex series are placed under “Vocal Recitals and Choral Collections.” Havok.

For your own good, scan through the whole compilations section. By the way, I noticed that on p.546, under “Concerts…”, the review for the New London Consort’s “The Feast of Fools” is repeated on p.669, under “choral collections.” You go figure.


Waddle over here to Page 2 of the Guide to the Penguin!

144a: 3.11.97; up.10.1.2000 Chia Han-Leon

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