Death of the last Penguin guide

Death of the last Penguin guide


norman lebrecht

November 10, 2020

The English Sibelius expert Robert Layton has died, aged 90. Together with the late Edward Greenfield and Ivan March, he produced the gently reliable Penguin Guides to Recorded Classical Music. He was also editor of the BBC Music Guide that rane from 1974 to 1990.

But his signal achievement was to sneak a wholly fictitious Scandinavian composer into the 1980 New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, to the spluttering subsequent chagrin of its editor, Stanley Sadie.

photo: Paul Westcott


  • yujafan says:

    I value Mr Layton’s “Guide to the Symphony” as a model of its kind, always informative and readable, this book has urged me to listen to several byways of the repertoire over the years. RIP.

  • M McAlpine says:

    One of the saner music critics. RIP

  • Herr Doktor says:

    I owe much of my CD collection, and my expanded interests in classical music ENTIRELY to the Penguin Guide. Aside from pointing me in the direction of the best recordings to get (and rarely did I find myself led astray, although it did happen occasionally), The Penguin Guide made me aware of composers and works I was never going to hear in the concert hall. As just one example: Josef Suk. When Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducted the U.S. premiere of “A Summer’s Tale” in 2004 in Boston–roughly 100 years after its composition, I already knew every single note (and absolutely love the work). And by the way, that Rozhdestvensky/Boston Symphony Orchestra performance was exceptional – a truly great performance. It still rings in my ears.

    I used to religiously buy every single edition of the Penguin Guide, and I read every one of them as if they were novels. Interestingly enough, I recently culled my bookshelves and got rid of most of them, because they collect dust at this point. But it wasn’t that many years ago that my heart would jump when I would see the new Penguin Guide in the bookstore. Thank you, Robert, Edward, and Ivan, for a job well done. Your work has greatly enriched my life.

    • DML says:

      You’ve said it all. The Guide was my Bible in my 20s… 30s… Is there anything like it anymore? The explosion of new recordings and new labels (remember when it was basically Decca and EMI, occasionally Phillips and DG?) would seemingly make it an impossible task. Witness the problems of BBC Record Review. Out of say 90 recordings of a work the ‘expert’ can usually consider only half a dozen or so!

      • Greg Bottini says:

        DML – you forgot to mention Columbia Masterworks (which later became Sony Classics), and RCA Victor – the two major US labels.
        You have just provided a prime example of the Penguin Guides’ Brit-centric ratings.

  • WC Yu says:

    The Penguin Guide was my go to guide when I started listening and exploring classical music. I enjoyed very much their reviews in the Gramophone throughout the 90s and early 2000s.

    When I last purchased a new edition of the Penguin Guide in the early 2000s from a local bookstore, two pages had been torn out. I managed to contact Ivan March’s Squires Gate Music and they happily sent me photocopied of the missing pages.

  • MSC says:

    He was model critic: thoughtful, deeply knowledgeable, honest, and fair.

  • Thomas Roth says:

    The fictitious composer was Danish, not Swedish. His name was Dag Henrik Esrum-Hellerup.

  • Sixtus says:

    This brings back memories of my college days when I worked summers for the also-venerable Schwann Record Catalog. We catalogers managed to sneak in at least one fictitious soprano into one of the Artist Issue cross-reference guides: Tatiana Nevahoydova.

    • James Michael Hughes says:

      Shades of Decca’s Omar Godknow!

    • Micaelo Cassetti says:

      I seem to remember there was a conductor, probably of the old Austro-Hungarian school, who went by the name of Hermann Havegesse…

    • Hmus says:

      at about the same time some of us working in a major University Library (not to be named here) were sneaking fake catalog cards into the collection, of which 2 apparently made the cut and were digitized decades later. I think it may be the one under the topic “Dust: addresses, essays, lectures” referencing the work of Sir Arthur Japington Pholderol. I imagine there are many of these the world over.

    • BrianB says:

      I understand these “sports” have often been done in nonfiction works deliberately to forestall or identify plagiarism. In Robert C. Marsh’s book on “Toscanini and the Art of Orcheststral Performance,” in the appendix of performances, Liszt’s “From the Cradle to the Grave” bears the parenthetical subtitle “Symphonic poem DER WOHLFAHRTSTAAT. “

  • Duncan says:

    RIP Robert. The Penguin Guide was so well written that your eye was constantly drawn to reading about recordings, artists and works that you knew nothing about – often with the result that (at least for me) I would then go and seek out the recording. But that was in the days when stores like HMV had massive classical departments and even Woolworth and WH Smith had decent classical sections.

  • C.Wang says:

    As a youth, I spent all of my allowances and afterschool part time work salary on CDs recommended by this man. RIP. I give your life’s work a Rosette.

  • Andrew Keener says:

    Bob was one of the kind people who supported and believed in me at the start of my career in London in the early 1980s. But even before that, as a schoolboy I devoured his reviews in The Gramophone and his distinguished writings elsewhere, not least his Sibelian scholarship. It’s surely hardly fair or accurate to describe his fake entry in Grove as ‘his signal achievement’.

  • Paul Westcott says:

    I write for the Penguin Guide for its last 10 years, so there he still a living Penguin!

  • Papageno says:

    5 rosettes for Layton. Highly recommended!

  • Seán Hurley says:

    Genuinely sad to hear of the death of Robert Layton. The Penguin Guides were maligned by some but they, along with Gramophone magazine, were the cornerstones around which I built my collection. I always valued the opinions of Robert Layton, Edward Greenfield and Ivan March for their judicious, unpretentious approach to recordings. They were never condescending or doctrinaire and their inclusivity allowed a wider audience to feel at home listening to classical music. Ní bheidh a leithéid ann arís/ We shall not see his like again.

  • Adi says:

    A sad loss indeed ! Used to diligently read his reviews from the mid 1970’s onward in the GRAMOPHONE, especially his Quarterly Retrospect columns, sadly discontinued many years ago. Also his reviews in the now legendary Penquin Guides. Though was somewhat intrigued by his negative comments about the Klemperer Brahms 4th. A true stalwart among reviewers. RIP.

  • Peter Russell says:

    I don’t know anyone in the classical record industry who didn’t have the highest respect for him. He was warm, highly knowledgable and very witty. I shared many happy times with Bob. There are not many left of that generation and I will always treasure my memories of that lovely man.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    I still have all my Penguin Gudes. Even though they were sometimes a bit Brit-centric in their ratings, they were (and continue to be) great reference books.

  • Robert (not Layton, alas) says:

    Only the other week I found myself quoting from Robert Layton’s chapter (in the two-volume Penguin guide to the symphony, which Robert Simpson edited) on Franz Berwald. Of whom RL also supplied a useful biography. His writings must have introduced a great many people to Berwald, quite apart from his scholarship dealing with Sibelius and others. May he rest in peace.