When the CD was first launched 25 years ago, usually at a high price, an unknown company called Naxos leapt into the marketplace with bargain-priced classical CDs carrying popular titles performed by unknown artists, mostly from Eastern Europe. At the time the long-established and often aloof classical labels didn’t see this as a threat, especially as these new items came from Hong Kong (not a city with classical associations), and were initially sold only in supermarkets.
How things have changed! Today Naxos, though retaining its Eastern European links, and still being sold at a low price, is the leading provider of classical music round the globe, and more likely to be turned to by collectors interested in the complete chamber music of Poulenc, or Peter Maxwell Davies’s ten Naxos Quartets (specially written for the label), than seekers after what was once described to me as the “cheap and cheerful”.
The Story of Naxos explains the steps that led from the one incarnation to the other. The author currently runs Naxos Audio Books, but this isn’t entirely an insider’s company history – he quotes the composer John Adams in a hostile reaction to Naxos’ recordings of his work, albeit an outburst for which the publisher, Newsweek, later apologized.
The changeover in the scope of the Naxos operation partly occurred when Naxos, under its founder Klaus Heymann, became a distributor for other independent classical labels. These included (in the Far East market) Hanssler Classic and Harmonia Mundi on CD, and Arthaus Musik, Opus Arte, EuroArts and C Major on DVD. Anyone who has regular contact with classical music will recognize these labels as purveyors of much of the best that is currently available anywhere in the fields of opera and concert video recording.
But prior to that, Naxos began to challenge the long-established labels in other ways. I began to discover this myself around ten years ago when I listened, in their Naxos manifestations, to works some of which I already knew reasonably well. Two instances immediately come to mind -- Haydn’s string quartets performed by the Kodaly Quartet, and Mozart’s piano concertos, played by Jeno Jando.
I’d no idea that the first Haydn disc played by the Kodaly I chanced on was in fact their first ever recording for Naxos — the Haydn quartets Opus 76, numbers 2, 3 and 4 (“Fifths”, “Emperor” and “Sunrise” respectively). Nor did I know that it’d been hailed as a triumph by the European music critics. It led to the Kodaly being commissioned by Naxos to record the entire quartet cycles of Beethoven, Schubert and, of course, Haydn.
I can’t remember which Mozart piano concerto played by Jeno Jando I heard first, but I’ve subsequently listened to many, and they’re all delightful. Jando, so this book informs us, first recorded three popular Beethoven sonatas for Naxos (“Pathetique”, “Moonlight” and “Appassionata”) in 1987, Naxos’s launch year. Heymann was so impressed he immediately asked him to record the complete cycle over the following three years. Halfway through Heymann asked him to record all the piano concertos of Mozart as well. Later came Bach’s Forty-Eight Preludes and Fuges.
Jando is not only someone who’s become a pillar of Naxos — he’s also someone whose name has been made by the label. I, for one, am certainly a fan of his so-called straight-forward approach, but only because it’s not really straight-forward at all, but conceals great beauty sustained within the relatively strict measures. With the clear bass of the piano he uses, and the distinguished playing of the Concentus Hungaricus (many of them former friends from Budapest’s Liszt Academy), these are recordings of the Mozart concertos to treasure.
Other Naxos stars now include the Japanese violinist Takako Nishizaki, Heymann’s wife, and the Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko, whose on-going cycle of Shostakovich symphonies is already winning awards.
A few big names have come to Naxos over the years almost by chance. Leonard Slatkin, for instance, had long wanted to record William Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, but had never been able to manage it. Then a deal came in sight involving Naxos and the University of Michigan, where Balcom taught. The result was a three-CD set that won four GRAMMY Awards for Naxos, its first ones for a classical product (a CD of Tibetan chant had won one two years earlier).
Naxos entered the world of audio books in 1994 and now has over 700 titles under its belt, including the whole of War and Peace on 51 CDs, and all the Sherlock Holmes stories and books in a 60-CD boxed set. The latter are read by David Timson (who also read an abridged version of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past on 39 CDs, re-translating the final book himself). Tolstoy’s masterpiece is read by Neville Jason; it took him 25 days. All can be sampled and downloaded at www.naxosaudiobooks.com. It’s possibly Naxos’s supreme achievement.
Finally, Heymann tells an amusing story about how Naxos actually got started. He already had the full-price label Marco Polo, famous for making the first recording of Havergal Brian’s “Gothic” Symphony, requiring two orchestras and two choruses, and lasting 100 minutes (now on the Naxos label). Then one day a businessman from South Korea who’d asked him to supply 50 digital CD recordings for sale door-to-door cancelled. What was Heymann, who’d already commissioned the recordings and received the masters, to do? The only answer he could come up with was to sell them cheap on a new label, and thus it was that Naxos was born. It was named after the Greek island on which Ariadne was marooned in Strauss’s famous opera. Almost all the other Greek island names had already been copyrighted, so the label’s name, like its initial list, was in essence a matter of chance. But what a very lucky chance it’s proved to be!