CULTURE : Musical Penguin Just Gets Fatter; Terry Grimley Celebrates the 30th Birthday of the Penguin Guide to Classical Recordings - but Wonders If the Recorded Repertoire Is Now Too Huge for Even a Very Fat Book to Make Sense Of

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Byline: Terry Grimley

Anyone who has taken a moderate interest in recordings of classical music over the last three decades is likely to owe a debt to the Penguin Guide.

Widely regarded as the bible of classical recordings, it has actually been sorting the musical wheat from the chaff for 45 years, having begun life as the Stereo Record Guide in 1960, 15 years before Penguin took it over.

It was launched by the critic Ivan March at the beginning of the stereo era, which he considered marked the most significant technical breakthrough since the introduction of electrical recording.

His original co-editors were Edward Greenfield and Dennis Stevens, and the book has remained a three-man effort ever since, with Robert Layton replacing Stevens when he moved to America.

The new edition carries an interesting overview of the guide's history, which relates it to the on-going development of recording technology.

The stereo LP reigned supreme for a quarter of a century, paralleled from the 1970s by the rise of the cassette. Experiments with quadrophonic sound in the 1970s failed to take off. But the arrival of digital recording and the compact disc at the beginning of the 1980s was another major watershed, quickly replacing both LP and cassette. The CD's combination of superior sound and silent background was even more compelling for classical than for pop music, although at first it seemed the downside would be the high cost of CDs.

In fact, the complete opposite happened. Manufacturing costs soon tumbled, and the recorded repertoire expanded in all directions, with obscure early music rubbing shoulders with new music and that of neglected composers of all centuries and countries.

Thanks to the efforts of independent labels like Chandos and Hyperion, followed by the super-budget label Naxos, British music has benefited hugely, so that the new edition of the Guide offers plenty of advice on recordings of music by the likes of Frank Bridge, Alan Rawsthorne, Herbert Howells and John Ireland as well as Elgar and Vaughan Williams.

This opening up of musical access by the CD is one of the most remarkable cultural phenomena ofthe last half-century. To give just one example: there is a short opera by the 17th century French composer Charpentier which had received just one performance, in a private house, until the specialist group Les Arts Florissants recorded it for CD. Now anyone who owns a CD-player and can afford the disc can listen to it as often as they like in their own private houses.

You will find numerous examples of similarly rare music in the new edition of the Guide, the full title of which has now metamorphosed into The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs and DVDS, reflecting the fact that technology has moved on to yet another phase.

DVDs, combining hi-fi sound with vision, obviously come into their own with opera and ballet. What DVD, and another new development, Super Audio CD (SACD), also offer is surround-sound. Quad has made a come-back, this time decisively linked to the home cinema set-ups which have persuaded more households to make room for back speakers.

Whether these developments mean that the CD has a more secure future in classical music than in the pop market, where young listeners increasingly prefer to download their music from the internet, is an interesting question.

The CD boom of the 1980s, when so many people were recreating their LP collections in the new medium, has long since run out of steam and the classical recording industry has officially been in crisis for a decade.

But it seems an odd sort of crisis when you leaf through the pages of the Penguin Guide. Admittedly the problem for today's performers and record companies is that they are competing against a market saturated by spring-cleaned vintage recordings (the pioneering stereo experiments of RCA and Mercury apparently come up a treat on SACD), but from the listener's point of view it is difficult to see when we have ever had it so good, with so many outstanding performances of standard repertoire to choose from and so many lesser-known musical byways to be explored. …