Note: This blog is an adjunct to The Art Music Lounge.
Having slogged through several editions of the Penguin Guide to Classical Music and come out of them more confused about which performance is the best than before I read them, and not being much of a fan of Gramophone’s Britain-centric reviews of virtually everything, I’ve decided to start my own guide. Since I am just one person and older than most young bloggers, I’m not going to start at the beginning of the alphabet just yet but, rather, will post my reviews of the performances I prefer to all others as I feel like it. Sooner or later I’ll get every composer I like in here. Either that or I’ll die trying, but at least what I post here will be valid and hopefully steer you in the right direction.
This will be a fairly spontaneous, out-of-sequence series of reviews and articles on music and the specific performances that move me the most. Expect surprises. What kind of surprises? Well, to start with, my favorite composers. Yes, many of the Established Greats will be here but some famous names will be missing or reduced to one or two pieces they wrote. Like Bruckner, Rachmaninov, Khachaturian, Schnittke, Cage, Stockhausen and Heggie. But perhaps more so in the choice of performances. A few for-instances: you’re going to see a lot of old mono performances recommended over stereo ones, and old analog stereo recommended over digital recordings. In several cases—particularly in opera, but also in some standard repertoire symphonies and concertos—you’re going to see DVD audio recommended but not the video. Why? Two reasons. In the case of symphony and concerto performances, who really wants to watch them? I don’t, at least not unless you’re talking about a genuinely great conductor who is worth watching, and there are very few of them (mostly in the past and mostly now deceased). In the case of the opera performances, well, one of my rants on my other website (The Art Music Lounge)—why Regietheater sucks—will explain it all. I’d say that 90% of most modern stage productions of opera aren’t worth watching because they’re stupid, perverted, and generally far removed from whatever the opera is supposed to be about, but in many cases the actual performance, the singing and conducting, is superb. So how do you obtain that? Well, you’ll have to get the DVD if the performance isn’t already uploaded on YouTube, but then you also need to download “DVD Audio Extractor,” rip the audio from the DVD and then burn it to a CD (whether a regular .wav CD or an mp3 disc is entirely up to you).
Another thing that I think will surprise you are the many hyperlinks I have embedded in this guide. Since this is an online service and not a physical book, I’m able to provide links to performances uploaded on YouTube or studio recordings–particular old ones that are difficult to find in physical form—on YouTube, Spotify or the Internet Archive. This way, you can actually LISTEN to the recordings I recommend instead of scratching your head and thinking, “Well, that’s nice, but I can’t find the bloody record anywhere!”
Probably another surprise will be, to paraphrase Robert Frost, “the classic recordings not taken.” Lots of them are missing from my recommendations because I don’t think very highly of them. A few examples? Karajan’s Beethoven Symphony cycle (pick one). Karl Böhm’s Die Zauberflöte and Entführung aus dem Serail. Furtwängler’s Tristan und Isolde. Klemperer’s Fidelio. Rudolf Kempe’s Lohengrin. The Solti Ring Cycle. Any Wagner or Puccini opera conducted by James Levine. Colin Davis’ recording of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique. Nearly every piano recording ever made by Daniel Barenboim or Martha Argerich. Schnabel’s Beethoven Piano Sonata cycle (a few examples for contrast excepted). Sorry, but they no longer impress me. They are sacred cows that I’ve chopped up for hamburger.
But, as I say, the main thing is that I will write what I want to write in the order I choose to write about it. Some days I just get inspired by a particular recording or composer that I’ve discovered and want to share that enthusiasm with you. I feel it’s far better to write when the inspiration is hot than to wait until it has cooled off and all I can give you is some sterile recap of what impressed me Since I am not the Penguin but the Penguin’s Girlfriend, I’ve adopted my own rating system. Of course, no recording listed here will be punk so I’m not going to mess with three-star or less reviews. In fact, I’m not going to use stars at all because girlfriend doesn’t like stars. I like fish. So here’s my rating system:
3 and a half fish: This is my lowest rating. A really good work and a good performance. Could be better but I’ve yet to hear another that beats it. Sometimes this rating will be given to vintage mono recordings, including radio broadcasts, where the sound quality isn’t quite the best.
4 fish: A superb recording of a fine work. Perhaps there is room for improvement but I’m going with it until proven wrong. If this is a stereo recording it’s because of a flaw or two in the performance; if an older mono recording, it might only get 4 fish because of the sonics.
4 and a half fish: Close to perfection.
5 fish: A stupendous recording, virtually perfect in every way, sonically and in performance. Nothing to carp about (pun intended).
6 fish: This is a recording/performance so good that it exceeds expectations. If there’s another version out there that you prefer let me know about it, because this one might be better than your pick. (This designation will only be handed out rarely, so don’t expect it.)
Originally, this guide was an interior page of The Art Music Lounge, but as the entries started mounting up the page became too big to save and was taking up too much of my allotted space, thus I decided to make this a separate website.
Although the guide is now technically complete, I will occasionally amend or add to it as I discover different and better recordings of different works. I want my readers to have as good a guide as any that’s published by the big names.