Questioning Authority in Music: Lamenting the Death of the Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music


I was recently recalling one of my trips to Tower Records. For those who remember, Tower Records was a massive music store. The flagship stores in major cities usually spanned several floors with one floor dedicated to different musical genres.   For many like me, Tower Records was simply the public library of music. It was a sacred collection of recorded works ancient and modern in any listening format you preferred.

I remember one specific occasion when Stevie Wonder and his entourage entered Tower Records late in the evening behind me. They closed the entire store behind me so that Stevie and his company had free reign of the store to explore and sample whatever they wanted.

Aside from the assembled collections and regular celebrity visits, there is another element that I now sorely miss about Tower Records: The Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music. Normally, you had to know where to look, but it was unmistakable. This paperback Bible of classical music was usually well worn; and, like a good Bible, it was frequently referenced and used.

If you wanted to explore a particular composer or work, then you’d reference the Penguin Guide first.  The Penguin Guide helped me on many occasions, from Bach’s Cello Suites to Holst’s The Planets.  The Guide would tell you all the available recordings, who they were recorded by, and gave you an exhaustive rating.

Penguin’s rating system was straightforward and gave you an easy way to see how a performance rated.

Ratings were done in the form of stars. One star meant that the work was a fair or somewhat routine performance.  It was reasonably well performed or recorded. You respectfully shied away from those.  Two stars assured A good performance and recording of today’s normal high standard. Three stars indicated an outstanding performance and recording of the calibre we now take for granted. Those performances receiving four stars were considered very exceptional issues on every count. Those rare works that exceeded the four stars were put into a category all their own with a rosette. A rosette was a compliment that placed the recording in a very special class.

Other classifications included a star in brackets, which meant that there was some qualification to the performance or recording. A bracket around all three stars usually denoted an outstanding performance in monaural sound.

Performances wouldn’t simply get stars or rosettes, they would sometimes be accompanied with a brief commentary that gave you keen insight into some aspect of the performance.  If you wanted to verify if a performance rated in the Penguin Guide met with your expectations, then you could often sample that performance on CD in full via a pair of headphones at a dedicated listening station at Tower Records.

In addition to a rating, the Penguin Guide would give you a bit of information and perspective about the recording.  You could then use the description and the rating as a way to judge which recordings you wanted to consider.

Of course, those days are long gone.  Tower Records is a faded memory as are many venerable music and record stores.  The Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music hasn’t been updated since 2010.  I daresay that we’ll see another updated edition published ever again.  Even its rival, the Gramophone Classical Music Guide hasn’t seen an update since 2012.

Instead, we are now being forced to rely on the masses.  Ratings today are baed on popularity and potentially arbitrary votes.  Have you ever stopped to think if JazzyJeff321 or SuperDJ88’s opinions and ratings should even be given any weight?  The unintended consequence of the digital revolution is that it has left a void in music authority.  Now, anyone—regardless of their qualifications, taste, expertise—has the same vote and the same voice with potentially the same weight as the expert and the veteran.  
On the one hand, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, there are many merits to this evolution. However, on the other hand, we’ve also suffered a significant loss.  I didn’t necessarily agree with everything the editors of the Penguin Guide said.  I didn’t necessarily prefer all their recommendations.  That’s wasn’t the point.  
The point was and is that at the guide existed.  At least it was there as a reference.  At least there was  a perspective.  If nothing else, the Penguin Guide was an attempt to solicit and organize such a body of knowledge and reviews from a panel with some experience and expertise.  
In hindsight, we can start to piece through the unintended consequences and social shifts that technology advancement can bring.  I, for one, appreciate the tremendous strides made in music’s legal availability thanks to the iPod and iTunes.  At the same time, I also miss hanging out with my friends and colleagues at a music store, sifting through collections, and engaging in wonderful discussions and the memories that came from those encounters.  Perhaps most of all, I’ll miss my reading sessions with Penguin.  


  1. +1 for Tower Piccadilly in the shadow of Eros, RIP. So many serendipitous discoveries made between 11 & midnight, when one could even park on a single yellow within walking distance.

    Whilst I monthly devour the pages of Hi-Fi News & Record Review, I long for a successor to the Penguin or Grammaphone. A compendium would arguably be more useful than ever, in helping to decide whether to invest in high resolution downloads over vinyl or CD previous releases. A Christmas present I'd love to give and receive !

  2. I guess I never 'got' the whole record shop thing. I have no fond memories of hanging out in record shops for fun, nor of enjoying flipping through endless LPs in search of a particular album. My musical tastes and fashion sense were not respectable enough for me to engage in meaningful conversation with the trendy people behind the counter.

    These days, the idea of consulting a special book for other people's opinions on recordings, then trying to find said recording and probably having to order it in to be collected in two weeks' time – and then probably hating it – fills me with torpor!