This book will no doubt be something different to every reader. The concept of listing 1,001 `greatest works of all times' in chronological order results in an absorbing compendium that can be a useful guide to newcomers, yet can also point experienced enthusiasts in the direction of unsuspected byways. Inevitably, the latter will take issue with some or many of the recommendations. Every work is given a brief historical outline, each entry concluding with a description of the merits of a `best performance'. Richly illustrated with a mix of promo-photography and historical images, as well as album covers, it invites repeated perusal and makes an excellent coffee-table item.
Not that there isn't ample room for debate, especially given the double hazard of selecting best works as well as best recordings of those works. Surely two entries for Wolfgang Rihm are an indulgence. And is Shostakovich's 11th symphony really one of the 1,001 greatest works of all time? (Or indeed Tchaikovsky's 1812?). Is Solti still the best option in Mahler 8 in the face of such blazing, magnificent, and much better recorded performances as those of Rattle, Sinopoli or Tennstedt? No later than the introduction the editor more or less shoots the entire project to rags with his repeated statements that, of course, it is all highly subjective. The process by which the works were selected is not revealed to the reader, except for the fact that the list was compiled by a single person, Matthew Rye himself. The team of reviewers is not quite as varied or international as the editor suggests; it represents, in fact, a sizeable chunk from the BBC Music Magazine's freelance staff, with a few lone representatives from America, Australia and Europe thrown in for good measure.
One wonders about criteria used, and their consistency. In the review for the Four Seasons the reviewer says that it is hard to choose between the many recordings, but that some criteria can be established nonetheless, one of them being that the work should be played on instruments and at the pitch Vivaldi knew, i.e., that it should be a period performance. Why that is so, he doesn't tell, and the same criterion doesn't seem to apply for works from other eras (or even many from the baroque itself), for the vast majority of recommendations for the classical and romantic periods favour staunchly traditional, even old-fashioned readings.
The recommendations are a curious mix of the predictable and the wayward. Once again the awful Klemperer recording of Mahler 2 is proclaimed top of the heap, a misjudgement that is somewhat redeemed by the sympathetic alternative suggestion of the first Kaplan version - and at the same time exacerbated by the inclusion of another highly overrated Mahler 2, that of Rattle. The inevitable Du Pré is there for the Elgar concerto, which makes me wonder, for I've heard better performances of that work. In fact quite a lot of the preferred recordings are of the "if it's old it's good" variety, with the 1943 Walton recording of Belshazzar's Feast as the most extreme example. It is this kind of recommendation that makes you wonder which audience this guide aims for. Surely, a recording that the reviewer himself qualifies as "rough" and lacking in detail, quite apart from being mono, is not a likely point of entry for classical music novices - more something for seasoned aficionados.
Also, this guide further perpetuates the myth of the 'extra edge that comes from a live performance', a notion popular among professional reviewers but one that I am quite sure wouldn't stand up to scientific scrutiny.
Those tired of the Rattle-ubiquity in the English music press will, however, find it refreshing that he's a rare occurrence in these pages. So are, relatively speaking, historically informed or authentic performances. Yet if the latter are recommended, the choice is often surprising. No McCreesh, Pinnock, Harnoncourt or Gardiner for the Messiah, but Jacobs, who got tepid reviews elsewhere. The Hannover Band for Haydn's Farewell is also an original choice.
In the end, if you are looking for the best recording of a particular work (assuming such a thing exists), I think you are best off checking your own priorities against as many opinions as you can find, not least those here on Amazon. This book adds just another bunch of such opinions, presented in an attractive format, and with some useful musicohistorical background. Nice, certainly, but not a must-have.