BOOK REVIEW / Odd black dots: Dermot Clinch tackles a trickier CD guide. 'The Gramophone Good CD Guide' - General Gramophone Publications, 14.95 pounds

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The Independent Culture
When life's getting you down, all sense of certainty vanished from the world, why not pick up a CD guide? These books are an almost guaranteed tonic, with their breezy confidence in a proper order to things. Yes, Chabrier's strength is his rhythmic energy, you mumble gratefully; Schnabel wasn't technically quite flawless, I know; Takemitsu's textures are opulent. And I will - of course - go a bundle on William Yeates Hurlstone when I hear some. All these bold apercus can hardly fail to be a comfort.

Similar judgements have been issuing from Gramophone magazine for 70 years. Established in 1923, blue-blooded Gramophone and its 'distinguished panel of reviewers' is a feature of the classical music world, and a paragon of conservative publishing. Even a 70th birthday 'relaunch' didn't greatly alter its style. Still the title of every song in a lieder recital is listed in numbing full. Still a piece of music is matched to its performer by a series of microscopic letters and figures. And the criticism itself has none of its dogged passion and detail. In Gramophone magazine the sforzando at bar 2.2 is only rarely overlooked.

Sprung from these mighty monthly loins, the yearly CD guide ought to be a satisfying read. And it's not that it isn't in its way impressive; not that you don't quail before its scope or that you don't value and trust what you read. It's just that as a guide - a helpful, intelligent companion, moving through the options and leaving you the freedom to decide - Gramophone barely gets to work at all.

You want the Magic Flute? Get Solti. The St Matthew Passion? Get the Eliot Gardiner. The room for manoeuvre here is limited, whether you're in a shop or stuck in an armchair back home. The 250 or so words accompanying each recommendation may be exemplary ('Born the son of a cobbler . . .' etc) but only the lucky winner gets them. The competition languishes down below, mere 'additional recommendations', details alone supplied. And so the virtues of Haitink's Zauberflote or Norrington's, Beecham's and a few others' too, are left undiscussed, and the reason for their ignominy is for ever veiled.

Comparison - as listeners to Radio 3 on Saturday mornings will know - can be a painless scatterer of information and instruction. And the complex system of symbols Gramophone offers here is no compensation for its absence. Arranged on the five lines of a musical stave, a regiment of sundry black dots, pound sterling signs and crescent moons informs us which CD is one for the basic library ('discotheque de base'), which a bargain buy, which worth the epithet 'demonstration quality', and so on. Some signs are obvious. But these degenerate crotchets - where did they spring from? And this small, inky pyramid ('caveat emptor') - how did that get here? Even experienced semiologists may be caused anguished moments.

CD guides, let's face it, are for the casual reader as much as the dedicated purchase-researcher. Of course the answers are important. But, like the maths examiner, we want to see the workings first: to understand just why Jessye Norman, digitally digitalised and clearer than the real thing, gets knocked out early in the second round by reissued mono Schwarzkopf. And as for that greatest pleasure of all, the smug leaf through the book to find out how, years back, when we weren't such experts (though we're not going to admit it now) we made the right choice . . . well, Gramophone hardly deals with that one at all. And so a word of gentle comparative advice about the Gramophone Good CD Guide. Caveat emptor. And pick up a Penguin instead.