Guidebooks to the Classical Music Frontier
So you want to get into classical music, but you don't know where to start. You've heard a few classical pieces you like -- the Four Seasons, Messiah, Appalachian Spring, Brandenburg concertos, Beethoven's symphonies, say -- but when you go to your record store, you're confronted with dozens of recordings of each of these masterpieces.The CD explosion of the last decade has made many more versions of the classical repertoire available than ever before. How do you find out which recordings, which composers and which pieces you like -- without going broke experimenting?Fortunately, several guides aimed as much at the classical music novice as well as the connoisseur can help. Just this month, the new Penguin Guide to Compact Disks arrived in book and record stores, to the delight of collectors everywhere. This 1,580-page tome lists most of the better classical CDs in print and rates them by performance and recording quality on a one-to-three star system. It's considered the definitive reference work in the field. The book is updated every year, and, if its publishers have any sense, they'll make it available on disk or online for easier searching.The volume has a British bias, and the three authors naturally have their own favorites, such as the conductors John Eliot Gardiner and Simon Rattle. Also, the listings aren't always organized logically, and the book's heft and fine print make it tough to wade through. Nevertheless, this is the best single resource I know for evaluating classical music recordings. Even at $20, it's worth it if you want to build a classical music library. Penguin also publishes a jazz guide, but the Penguin classical book overlooks a lot of new music, especially on smaller labels. In fact, the best guide to new music, John Schaefer's New Sounds is currently out of print, but worth tracking down in used bookstores. Schaffer also hosts a fine public radio show that's not, alas, available here.The Penguin Guide is most helpful for listeners who already know what works they want to buy and just need to figure out which recording they want. But how does a newcomer to classical music figure out which of the thousand or so works of, say, Johann Sebastian Bach are essential and which are just nice to have? That's where the classical music guidebooks come in.Now, I don't think you need a guidebook to enjoy classical music. You can instead turn on the radio and listen until you hear something you like, and go from there. But for those who want a little advice to direct their listening, several such books, such as The Rough Guide to Classical Music do a pretty good job of separating the diamonds from the cubic zirconiums. On the other hand, Jim Svejda's The Record Shelf Guide (by the host of the radio program of that name) is as opinionated and elitist as its host: he's an unapologetic apologist for the old-fashioned romantic classics and performance style, disdains almost everything from the Baroque and before, and utterly -- and unfairly -- dismisses most 20th century music.My favorite is The NPR Guide to Building a Classical Music Collection, which is aimed at the listener who's just starting out. Author Ted Libbey not only lists the best available recordings, but also explains, in engaging plain English, just why the 300 works listed are really essential. Libbey is a composer and music columnist and for the last few years has hosted the Basic Library segment of National Public Radio's Performance Today show (about which more next week), and he's much more broad-minded than Svejda, though he has an equally critical ear.The book is broken down by category (orchestral works, chamber music, opera, etc.) and then by composer. It provides both brief biographies of the principal composers and informed but not esoteric discussions of individual works. It also lists several worthwhile recordings and, most important, explains the differing virtues of each, making it easy for listeners to match purchases to their tastes. The book skimps on opera and omits early music and contemporary music, but for the basic repertoire, it's quite reliable.Your ultimate goal should be to dispense with guidebooks: once you learn the composers, styles and performers you like, you can make your own choices. Until then, with resources like these it's easy to find out what works of classical music will most likely appeal to you.