There are Penguin guides, a great BBC guide, and an NPR guide that covers the basics, but before buying take a look at these sites. I find them pretty helpful.
The latter concentrates on 20th century classical music.
The BBC guide is quite nice -- so is the OLD Gramophone (i.e. from until ~15yrs ago). ALthough the latter will not have the latest recordings, I find the comments consistent. Not so, in the later versions.
If you read french: "Le Guide Diapason" (out of print, but available) is invaluable IMO, so is the "Guide des Indispensables" also out of print, but often available. It''s amazing that some people (in France) went to great lengths to produce superb guides -- and then just abandoned the product!
fan reviews on amazon are extremely good
"Best" will vary from one person to another. Is a scratchy old recording of a violin concerto played by Fritz Kreisler better than a state of the art SACD by Hilary Hahn? Opinions differ. You should buy a few recommended recordings, and keep track of how you feel about (1) The performers, particularly soloists and (2) the audio quality of the recording. Don't think that there is only one way to perform a particular piece. There is huge lattitude for interpretration, and you should learn your own tastes and follow that when you buy more recordings.
For new releases, check out www.classicstoday.com.
I have three books recommending classical recordings. They almost never agree. There is no such thing as a definitive recording, and there's no one right way to play Beethoven.
So don't get hung up on looking for the "best." Instead, buy cheap and in quantity. (The Naxos label was made for people like you!) This will give you a chance to decide what you like and don't like, which is far more important than the (nonexistent) consensus of the critics. When you find composers or styles or periods or genres that you like, buy more of it.
The one thing a guide might be helpful for at your stage of the game is in choosing the pieces, rather than the recordings. For that, I'd recommend buying the guide with the *fewest* entries!
. NPR also publishes a pretty good book if you are starting a collection, but as Bomarc says there is rarely agreement on these things from one book to another.
I'm a bit confused - are you referring to "definitive recordings" to mean the quality of the recorded sound, or did you mean the performance with out regard to the sound, or did you mean a combo of both? If you are concerned with audio quality, as opposed to performance, some of the best recommendations will come from members of audio forums who are focused on that issue (and who might also have some expertise, or good taste (:-)). Its good to know where your advise is coming from - some books and critics basically ignore audio quality.
If you are looking for the "defining" performance I agree with others - it doesn't exist. However, I believe that your first selection is very important and should be made carefully, with the knowledge that there are other excellent, but different, performances available What occurs for many folks is that 1st recording, good, bad or indifferent, will become a benchmark for judging other performances later on. I would acquire several of the guides mentioned above and operate off the consensus. Eventually you will develope an affinity for particular artists, conductors, or orchestras/groups, and be able to wade thru all of the critics and their reviews and make your on choices. With regards to the guides, I find the guides which are published in England quite useful BUT beware of the fact that they can be just as provincial, that is, placing undue emphasis on the quality of some English conductors, and the tendency to ignore some very high quality American conductors, composers, and orchestras.
Nick, I use several sources:
Penguin Guide. The "big book" is revised regularly and they also publish a shorter update between printings of the big book.
Gramophone guide. I don't like this as much. They seem to prefer the British orchestras and performers. I'm British, so I shouldn't mind! However, it seems a bit biased.
arkivmusic.com. This is an online store for classical CDs (including many hard to find ones), but they also have interesting and insightful reviews.
I also regularly read BBC Music magazine and Gramophone magazine for new issues.
My point is that you should consult a number of print and on-line sources, as well as friends/colleagues.
The NPR guide gets mentioned, but their coverage is limited and their comments not particularly useful.
the latest penquin guide 2004 has just been released,it includes most all of the new releases thru early 2003.as mentioned in earlier posts,the reviews don't always tell you much about the quality of the recordings,so if this is important to you ,rely on the ones that do.
the gramophone web site is also very informative as they give you their best picks going back 20 yrs. or so.
also the recommendation of the naxos label is very good,especially of the last 5 years of their recordings.the sound quality is right up there with the major labels
Thank you all for the suggestions. I guess by "definitive recording" I mean a combination of performance and recording quality. Actually, I'm not really sure, I just know that there are some recordings and performances that are famous for good reason, and I'm interested in a guide that will clue me in to some of those.
I've got a lot of great leads. Thanks again.
For one man's thorough list, you can check out Arthur Salvatore's "Audio Critique" at http://www.high-endaudio.com/index_ac.html
I have purchased a copy of Muti conducting Mussorgsky's "Pictures From an Exhibition" on Salvatore's recommendation and found the recording to be spectacular in both performance and recording quality.
Nick, I own and use the following guides:
(1) Gramophone Classical Good CD Guide. British. Over 1300 pages. (There is also a shorter version of this book on opera only.)
(2) Penguin Guide to Compact Discs. British. Over 1500 pages.
(3) Classical Music on CD: The Rough Guide. British. About 500 pages. (There is also a shorter version of this book on opera only.)
(4) Jim Svejda, The Record Shelf Guide to Classical CDs. American. About 900 pages.
All of these are fat, large-format paperbacks and all are well worth having and using. Of course they often don't agree, but what is "the best" performance is obviously a subjective judgment. Books like these will certainly alert you to famous, celebrated performances that stand out from the pack. Good luck and good listening.
I have the Penguin Guide, the one that came out in '96, I was also just given The Rough Guide by my wife. The Rough Guide says it is good for people just getting started in classical and I agree.
I find the Penguin guide to be very good, giving alot of options or reviews of a particular piece most times. The problems I have with Penguin are the updated volumes usually contain very few new entries and soemtimes things that are reviewed are out of print or very hard to obtain in the U.S.A., but all in all in my view Pengiun is very good.
I think it is a good idea to focus on a particular style, era, or composer, then buy what you like. I think you will find that every once in a while, you read a review, it sounds good, you buy it, and then you listen and you don't like it. This happens to me every so often and to me its just part of the classical music thing.
If you can find a shop that sells used cds in your area that is a very good thing to do and you can usually listen to them in the store before you buy.
I find that Grammophone Magazine is really useful. I've purchased a fair number of their "editor's best" CD's and have been delighted. Their website also has some suggestions. Although I've never read it I imagine their guide to classical music CD's would be excellent.