How do you find BEST classical recordings???

So many recordings of the same piece! Of course we all want great sonics and great performances. Some go for technique, others go for emotion, etc. The question is: when you want to hunt down the best recording of a particular piece, where do you go for info? What criteria do you use? Got any good tips?

(answers should apply to CD's and vinyl)
My wife and I are serious classical music nuts, with well over 10,000 items in our collection and a custom database cross-linked to published reviews to keep track of it all. We’ve studied musicology and published quite a few classical reviews. The problem with ANY recommendation from ANY expert source is that the reviewer’s personal preferences (or biases) aren’t YOUR personal preferences.

Fanfare, Gramophone and Penguin Guides can be helpful but for decades they have been biased towards selling new releases. Gramophone and Penguin are shamelessly nationalistic and some of the long time Fanfare reviewers are quirkier than any audiophile tweaker. Until you become familiar with their biases you will most likely get a decent performance but not one that you personally would find “the best”. None of these magazines is particularly concerned about the quality of the sound. The PBS and old Freed Basic Repertoire lists are also very biased and limited although any Basic Repertoire list is a decent place to start. If you like a particular piece try to listen to multiple recordings that way you will quickly develop YOUR own preferences as to conductors and performance styles.

Subscriptions to Gramophone and Fanfare are indispensable for serious collectors (my Gramophone collection goes back to the invention of the LP). This is overkill for most classical music listeners. Most basic repertoire pieces have been recorded almost 200 times. For most pieces, a cross section of classical music fanatics, would probably agree on somewhere around 5-10 “must hear” or outstanding performances and list of another 10+ or so performances that are worth the time to listen to. That would be the extent of their agreement.

As a place to start for advice on CD’s, I recommend the Classical Digest site: It aggregates the recommendations of multiple review sources and pretty much serves up the recommendations in the format I described above. (Their only real shortcoming is in dealing with historical recordings). For a casual classical music listener I wouldn’t quarrel with choosing any of the “Top 20”choices on Classical Digest as a personal favorite. You can also read the Gramophone reviews online at their site but only experience hearing a few hundred recordings can clarify your own preferences.

Vinyl is more problematic; I have been buying classical LP’s since 1963 onward. I have thousands. The quality of pressing has always been a topic for heated discussion among collectors going back to the invention of the 78. There have been many superb performances that are almost impossible to find on good vinyl. Most have been remastered on CD. Let me be clear that while a superb analog recording, expertly and carefully mixed, cut and pressed will always sound better than if it were remastered to Redbook CD, however, for many classical LP issues expertise and care were lacking and the CD is a better overall choice. Some of the Vinyl reissues have an overall sound that is NOT what the originals sound like.

Audiogon has quite a few members who are very knowledgeable about classical music recordings. Classical music threads of the “please recommend a good recording of…” get good responses and good recommendations. The Audiogon threads can also give you opinions on sound quality and opinions on the relative sound quality of Vinyl pressings and their various CD reissues.

The great thing about classical music is that there now are sufficient recordings worth listening to that you can’t exhaust them in a lifetime of listening. The bad thing is that you will never hear them all.
What a clear, informative and useful response. Thanks.
Pls1, thanks for the terrific reply, incredibly detailed and helpful advice.

Every once in a while, the most innocuous question brings a sleeper out into the open and increases the dimension of the reality you live in.
Try for HP's listing.
I recommend National Public Radio (NPR) Performance Today book called "The Basic Record Library". It has over 800 listings with catalog numbers. It is available online for only $10 at this link...

Online they have a list of 50 essential recordings. They are up to 39 so far, so you can check back each week. The whole list so far is at this link...
Pls1 - I have to chime in to thank you along with all the others for the answer to my question. By the way, has anyone used AMG online?
Being a classical music "nut" myself, I dare say Pls1's post is a reference. I second his comments on the Penguin, Gramophone & Fanfare guides on all points & one more: esp. on Penguin, I find inconsistencies in the recommendations. OTOH, older Gramophones' notes are a reference.
Again, is a good source.
I can add:
The Diapason guide (in French) was very good, and more consistent, and it also mentioned vinyl -- but the last issues, late '80s, are dated and difficult to find.
Another resource to check out is The have a huge reference base of info about classical music including program notes for most standard pieces, a comprehensive timeline, composer profiles, the short Grove Dictionary of music and much more. Andante also is the source on the web for Concertgebouw, Philadelphia, London Symphony and Vienna Phil concerts on demand. They also have a streaming audio channel that has the widest range of classical music (medieval to contemporary and 1920’s to newly released recordings) in excellent interpretations. They cost about $10 per month and you will need a high speed Internet connection to listen to the music. Listening to the Andante web channel for a few weeks will give you a good idea about what you like or dislike. They are in negotiations for a major collection of reviews but that will take some time.

The guides are excellent quick references to works and performers but they won’t help too much in deciding which performance to buy. is another resource but their recommendations place heavy emphasis on availability of the CDs. They often do not recommend any of what I would consider the “Top 5” performances, but all their recommendations are decent.

BTW Peter what are your current favorite performers, composers?
Also, check out
Pls1 - I need to compile the pieces and composers that I will be asking for advice on. But most currently, I've decided that I really like Vaughan Williams. I would love some advice about how to get into some of his best work and associated best performances. I have the Sony Essential Classics CD (SBK 62645, Philadelphia Orchestra) that has three short works, including Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. The recording has lots of weird sonic effects (I assume due to the transfer to digital), but the miking is great and there is a multitextured sound. I remember hearing the Hiawatha piece on the radio and liking that. I don't like things too shmaltzy. Any suggestions?

I also love Bruch's Scottish Fantasy. Any suggestions on that? I recently heard a young Chinese violinist performing it on the radio. It was absolutely fantastic. I forget his name, but it was a rather short name that could be pronounced akin to an English name (i.e. it was very close).

Thanks Pls1!!!
peter, you asked about AMG on line - i've never looked at it on line but i buy it regularily. It is best used for gaining a concensus of performances on recent releases and, i think best of all, it has composer reviews wherein all of the composers most popular works are discussed and "ranked". But be careful, sonic quality is not really important to these guys. (i also subscribe to all of the recommended journals and highly recommend this as a primary source of information, just be wary - Pls1 has described them very accurately.

you mentioned Bruch's Scottish Fantasia - You may well have heard Cho-Liang Lin on Sony/CBS. It also includes Bruch's Violin Concerto. This is an excellent choice, however my personal preference is the same program by Kyung-Wha Chung on a Decca Legends CD. But either will serve you well.

On Vaughn Williams, since you have some of his short works, you might try Neville Marriner's CD (if still in print) on Argo, which includes the Fantasia On a theme by Thomas Tallis, the Fantasia on Greensleeves, The Lark Assending etc. However, i would recommend that you sample one of his symphonies, the 2d called the London Symphony. There are many good versions on budget labels, I like Previn in all of the symphonies on RCA. However my current interest is in the original version on Chandos by Hickox. Beware this is an audiophile disc in the best sense - but it will challenge the dynamics of your system. enjoy.
The Bruch you head is probably

Bruch: Violin Concerto no 1, Scottish Fantasy / Lin, Slatkin Chicago Symphony
Catalog#: MK 42315 CBS Masterworks

If you liked this try these two violinists and see what pieces/performances you prefer

Jascha Heifetz: The Supreme Two midpriced CD’s Bach, Bruch, Brahms, Sibelius Tchaikowsky Rca - #63470


Itzhak Perlman - Great Romantic Concertos ~ Beethoven, Bach, Bruch, Mendelsshon, Paganini, Tchaikowsky 3 CD’s Angel Classics - #64922

These will give you exposure to excellent very different interpretations of major violin concertos.

Vaughn Williams is not one of my personal favorite composer so I will defer on selections. But I would check out his London Symphony and Sinfonia Antarctica.
In the beginning of your classicl journey you will have to be patient and your inner ear will develope. Took me 10 years of listening, made some "poor" choices along the way. The use of the 1 minute Real-Audio clips has helped me signinficantly. Gramophone in the 90's did offer good recomendations. On some of my favorte compostions I have several performances, each offers something enjoyable. Now don't get fooled by "big" names, like Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and "small" names like Iceland Symphony Orchestra. Just got a out-of-print Levine/Berlin performance of Sibelius #2. Not much happening here. The "little orchestra of the far north" does a much more emotional performance. If you get a chance, get to some old (circa 1997) copies of Gramaphone (check your local university library), they'll point you to classic performances. Their new web site recommendations are worthless.
Tweekerman, that's a bit of a generalization there... comparing the Berlin Phil in favor of the Iceland Sym. Yes the Berlin Phil can sound sterile at times, esp. on DG recordings and esp. when levine is at the helm, yes the Iceland Sym. sounds much better than you would expect from such a small country.... but that comparison is ridiculous. The Berlin Phil blows away the Iceland Symphony. In every respect. I know, I am one of the principal string players on that Iceland Sym. Sibelius set. I just got that recording, I have major problems with it. Terribly recorded, and the performance has holes all over the place. It does have a good deal of nordic spirit and enthusiasm, but as an orchestra, it is really is a "B" grade band. The performance lacks cohesion for one, has ensemble problems, and the intonation in the winds and brass???.
Next time the Berlin Phil is in your town, go hear them. They are the best orchestra in the world, period.
These are all good suggestions. I read everything I can, ask friends, borrow recordings, listen at the store (some stores will open CDs for auditioning). There are also people who post reviews regularly on I have found a few reliable people whose opinions I've come to trust.

BBC Music mag has not received a mention (or maybe I overlooked it). The only thing I sort of like about it is that they do rate "Sound." However, the text of their reviews is (a) short and (b) rarely explains a low rating for sound.

American Record Guide is another option.
Buxter66, I just did a comparison once again on Sibelius sym's. Seems I was close to the truth, but now I fully realize that the Iceland may just very well have the best Sibelius complete symphony set, including the Kullervo. Everyone needs to listen to the opening movement to the 4th symphony. Then listen to Sanderling/Berlin on the 4'th. Absoulely no comparison. Like you put it, there is "Nordic Spirit" in the Panula/Iceland. hummm, not easy for me to describe, not being a musician, but the cohesion of players, simplicity, "true to the music" feeling, is all there in the Iceland performance. Its as if this was conducted by Robert Kjanus (Sibelius' close friend, first performed Sibelius) wholeheartly applauded by Sibelius. I respect your opinion, considering you are a principle player in the Iceland. Sure there are elements in the Sanderling/Berlin, Segerstam/Danish that shine through, but for overall performance, Panula/Iceland takes the prize. On the Naxos label, "its all about the music". Back to Peter's question, you may want to check out, there is some good reviews, I give them 90% credibility. In general I agree with their reviews, there is just not enough reviews of current cd's to make the best choices, in other words not enough comparisions.
Tweekrman, several things...
it is Petri Sakari/Iceland, Panula is only conducting a Finnish orchestra on one of the smaller works in the set.
I was a principal string player in these recordings at the time. (this was about 5-6 yrs ago)
I don't think much about most critics today. So that is a moot point. I say trust your ears and heart, if it floats your boat, that that's all that matters.
I'm glad you like these recordings, they have "something".
Have you heard Beecham's Sibelius? That is a nice performance. Its true what you say about the qualities of the orchestra and recording... I guess what I miss is a cultivation, a refinement.... which I guess is kind of the opposite of nordic spirit that we are talking about, the primal sort. Oh well, I guess you can't have everything always. But that said, those strengths are also their downfall.
Ok , yes its Sakari/Iceland. I enjoy the "big-band" style of Sanderling/Berlin, Segerstam/Danish, there is always room for various Sibelius recordings, all great symphonies. WOW! So you were a part of the Sibelius Sym cycle with the Iceland. Bravo! and standing ovation! Great performance! BTW if you are looking for a "refinement" , "big-band" sound, look to the new Segerstam/Helsinki recording of 1&7 on ONDINE label. Powerful recording. He takes them faster than with his Danish recording. And the Helsinki comes through much more intense than with Berglund. But truth to tell the great new Finnish conductor Mikko Frank/Swedish R.S.O. recording Sibelius Legends/Ensaga is absolutely spectatular. Truly magical maestro! If he does a Sibelius Sym cylce with this S.R.S.O. then we'll all be in Sibelius heaven.
I'll check out the Frank recording, thanks for the tip. Sibelius is a deceptively difficult composer to get right, particularly in regards to color and spirit. I guess my true alltime fav of a sibelius recording would be the Ginette Neveu Sibelius Vln concerto. The finns are special people.
If I can't listen to a recording before I buy it, I usually select a recording on the basis of WHO is performing the work. I know which musicians play in the manner that I like. Also, in my experience, some of the OLDEST recordings are the best. Today I just received and listened to a new SACD issue of Beethoven 6th Symphony (Pastorale)recorded by Bruno Walter in January of 1958. Forty five years ago! (By the way, I also have the old LP, which I intend to compare). They must have had some darned good analog tape recorders back then, because this digital remastering is superb. Most important, the rendition has a quality that I rarely find in today's performances.
Eldart, Yes the recordings of the late 50's thru say late 60's were best sound. ADD vs the modern DDD. The Telar/Mozat sym. cd i have with Mackerras/Prague lists all the different super mics, digital equipment used in the recording. But the B. Walter/Columbia you have sounds much better. BTW, the Walter/Columbia recordings of Mozart Last 6 Symphonies are from my comparisons, the best. Sony has now released the disc you have , just 2 of the symphonies, on SACD, which is ALREADY Out Of Print..??? Not sure what Sony will do with these definitive recordings in the future.???