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Serving up opinions on classical music recordings with an always engaging blend of informed intelligence and unabashed enthusiasm, the Penguin Guide, in one guise or another, has been a popular annual fixture since 1960. That, in itself, is a remarkable feat.

No less noteworthy, though, has been the sterling stewardship of Ivan March and Edward Greenfield, who have been at the helm since the compendium launched as The Stereo Record Guide more than half a century ago. With the no less estimable Robert Layton replacing Dennis Stevens (who departed in 1968) and Paul Czajkowski joining in recent years, the Guide has maintained its position as an authoritative and refreshingly opinionated commentary on the best available recordings as formats transmogrified from vinyl LPs to CDs and DVDs and, increasingly, to digital downloads.

But, in what the editors describe as a ‘golden age for classical music’, the sheer volume of available recordings placed the Guide’s conventional approach to inclusivity under enormous strain. Its 2010 edition ran to more than 1,300 pages and featured almost 9,500 recordings; yet it still fell frustratingly, if also understandably, short of encompassing the current enormity of choice.

This latest edition takes a Damoclean approach to the knotty conundrum by honing in on 1,000 of ‘the must-have CDs and DVDs’, in what amounts to the most radical rethinking of its editorial approach in its 51-year history. It is a choice as inspired as it is courageous, and with typical aplomb, opens up an argumentative hornet’s nest. With the fi eld narrowed, the provocation to debate and contest what is included (an obvious inclination towards British music, too much G&S, and film soundtracks, some might point to) at the expense of what has been left out (Berg’s Wozzeck, Melba Recordings’ historic SACD Ring cycle, others might argue) has been heightened.

Which, given the real merit and appeal of the Guide has always been the opinions of its editors, is all to the good. With its concentrated focus, this new format brings that aspect to the fore and splendidly revitalises a distinguished tradition. Long may it continue.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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