Guides to classical music recordings

February 17, 2009

Last week I wrote about several good online sites for classical music reviews.  As helpful as they are, those sources are only relevant for recent releases.  If one wants to learn about older recordings — and there are a vast number of them — some guidance is needed. Not only are there hundreds of composers to hear, but in some cases there are hundreds of recordings of individual pieces. Where is one to start?  A guide can be a great help.

Here are three recommendations.  I have not looked at all of the available guides, but I think that I have looked at the best ones.

The Rough Guide to Classical Music
Joe Staines and Duncan Clark, Eds.
(Rough Guides, 640 p.)

The Rough Guide is a good place to begin.  It gives you a good overview of the sweep of music history, and contains short biographies of all of the well-known composers.  It can also help you get started on a collection, recommending a small number of recordings for each of the featured composers.  I suppose that this could be all that some people need (but that would be a pity).

The Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music
Ivan March, Edward Greenfield, Robert Layton, and Paul Czajkowski
(Penguin, 1602 p.)

Once you have mastered The Rough Guide, you can graduate to the Penguin Guide.  The main difference is that this guide aims not so much to teach about classical music as to help the reader sift through the available recordings.  It assumes one knows what work you’re looking for, and simply gives a list of recordings (the list may range from one or two for obscure works to several dozen for core repertoire) along with a short paragraph or so on each trying to sum up its qualities, for better or for worse. Of course, these assessments are necessarily subjective, but, with a few exceptions, I have found their judgment to be generally sound.  An updated edition is published each year.

This kind of guide can be useful in two ways: as a pointer toward recordings of particular distinction, and as a warning about particularly poor recordings.  It’s also a good way to learn what music individual composers wrote.  The really great thing about the Penguin Guide is the sheer scope of it: they cover a lot of ground!  I’ve spent many happy hours paging through mine, and have learned an enormous amount from it.  For several years I thought it was the most comprehensive guide around, but I was wrong. . .

Third Ear Classical Music
Alexander J. Morin, Ed.
(Backbeat, 1202 p.)

I am in awe of this book.  It sometimes seems in life that, no matter how hard you work at something, there’s always someone somewhere who knows more about it than you.  When it comes to classical music, those people got together and wrote this book.  It’s simply an amazing achievement.  I wouldn’t venture to guess how many different recordings they discuss, or even how many compositions, but there are close to 600 composers listed in the table of contents: from Bach to Mozart to Wagner (like all guides), from Bax to Messiaen to Webern (like the Rough Guide), from Boyce to Medtner to Widor (like the Penguin Guide), but what about from Blomdahl to Magnard to Wolf-Ferrari? It’s all here, in 1200 pages of small print.  The only drawback is that no new edition has appeared since 2001, so it is somewhat out of date.  Still, a feast!


Is there another guide that compares favourably with these?  I’d appreciate knowing about it.

2 Responses to “Guides to classical music recordings”

  1. Mark Says:

    This is great! I’ve been looking for something exactly like this. I want to get to know much more classical music, rather than my usual Mozart, Bach, Haydn, and Tchaikovsky lineup. I mean they are great, but I would like to broaden my scope a bit (or a good bit, actually). Looks like I need to start with the Rough Guide and graduate up through the Penguin Guide and onto the Third Ear. Should only take the rest of my life…. I better get started.

    Excellent info. Thanks, Craig.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Glad to be of service, Mark.

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