The Naxos label is celebrating its 15th anniversary, and you should join in the fun. In this short period of time, this astonishing budget label has released more than 2,500 recordings, most of the finest quality, as attested to by the many prestigious awards Naxos and its artists have won. What would otherwise have cost you a fortune you can now have for a song on Naxos (that is, from $5 to $7). In other words, you can buy three Naxos CDs for the price of one from a major classical music label. This makes it affordable to explore music you haven’t already heard—essential for anyone who loves music.
The work of Naxos is invaluable not only because it makes the basic repertory available in more than respectable performances at a budget price, but it has also expanded its reach to music that the major labels pass over because the folks in marketing tell them they cannot make a penny doing it. Yet Naxos has triumphed with a marketing strategy that concentrates on the music itself rather than on performing superstars who can sell the umpteenth version of a well-known warhorse. More than 900 composers are represented in its catalog, including some 300 world premieres. BBC Music magazine proclaims: “Naxos has become without a doubt the world’s favorite classical label. In the history of the gramophone, no company has more thoroughly overturned the classical record business.”
The genius behind this enterprise is a German entrepreneur named Klaus Heymann. The story of how Naxos came about is charming. Heymann began arranging musical concerts in Hong Kong to promote the audio equipment that his company was distributing there and soon found himself on the board of the Hong Kong Philharmonic. This association brought him into contact with the Japanese violinist, Takako Nishizaki, who was engaged to play the Second Violin Concerto by Henryk Wieniaswski. The fruitful outcome of that meeting was, after their marriage, a son named Henryk and a new record label company, HNH International (the parent company of Naxos), named after Heymann, Nishizaki, and Henryk. Heymann thought CDs should not be any more expensive than records. He found a way to produce them at that price through the revolution in technology and the discovery of first-rate but relatively unknown musical talents. The rest is history—history that is still being made.
For instance, here I am listening to the complete string works of contemporary Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen, as performed by the Finnish Chamber Orchestra, under the superb conductor Okku Kamu. This may not be the first CD, even of Sallinen’s music, that I would recommend to you, but it is a joy for me to have the chance to hear this somewhat somber, valedictory music. I also recently revisited Kamu’s Naxos recordings of 19th-century Swedish composer Franz Berwald’s four symphonies, with the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra. These are great works. Since you have probably not heard of them, you may hesitate to pay $36 for the BIS recordings, under the great conductor Sixten Ehrling. So why not gamble a ten spot for these and see what you have been missing?
More recent Naxos acquisitions have included Roy Harris’s Symphonies Nos. 7 and 9, the opening release in the first complete series of his symphonies. I find it, well, ironic that it took a German entrepreneur and the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine to undertake the premier traversal of the symphonies of one of America’s great composers. I am also anxiously awaiting the next installment in a complete set of Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu’s string quartets, performed by the Martinu. Quartet. The first release, with Nos. 1 and 2, was exceptional. As is often the case with the projects Naxos undertakes, there is not another complete set currently available. I am also enjoying a new CD containing the three symphonies of New Zealand’s national composer, the recently deceased Douglas Lilburn. These exhilarating works, especially the First Symphony, seem to be a cross between Aaron Copland and Jean Sibelius, with Sibelius winning the upper hand. Other recent finds include the thoroughly engaging chamber works of Charles-Marie Widor, a French composer otherwise known for his organ works; the captivating piano trios of Spanish composer Joaquin Turina; and the extraordinary and disturbing Second Symphony by Henryk Gorecki.
Of course, in a single column, one can only scratch the surface of so vast a catalog. I could devote this entire article to a single month’s releases and still not have the space to cover them all. Naxos has been an integral part of this column since it began eight years ago. Much of what I have recommended will soon be available in a collection titled Surprised by Beauty: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music, Among the treasures, including pre-modern ones, that I have covered include works by Gossec, Pleyel, Boccherini, Haydn, Stamitz, Krauss, Spohr, Poulenc, Tveitt, Rubbra, Antheil, Barber, Piston, Janacek, Shostakovitch, and Finzi. (The recent Naxos recording of Finzi’s Clarinet Concerto has sold more than 20,000 copies, a runaway best-seller in classical music terms.)
I should also add that Marco Polo is the full-price imprint of HNH, and as the name indicates, it has explored adventurous, slightly out-of-the-way musical material. Some of these releases, as time goes by, gravitate to the Naxos label at the lower price. For instance, the superb Berwald piano trios are now available on Naxos. So is Janaecek’s galvanizing Danube and Incidental Music to Schluck and Jau. Marco Polo, begun by Heymann a little earlier than Naxos, is the source for the first complete recordings of such treasures as Villa-Lobos’s string quartets and the symphonies of 20th-century Czech master Laszlo Lajtha.
Could one ask for more? As if all this were not enough, Naxos has begun a historical series of invaluable early recordings. One used to have to pay premium prices on specialist labels to hear historical recordings by the likes of Toscanini, Walter, Klieber, Rachmaninoff, Cortot, and others. Now, for Naxos’s absurdly low price, you can listen to these and Casals’s famous first recording of the Bach Cello Suites and, one of my principal joys, Fritz Busch’s 1936 superlative recording of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, with the Glyndebourne Festival Chorus and Orchestra.
After Naxos completes its traversal of a composer’s works, it offers them all together in a “White Box” series. Recent examples include the complete symphonies of English composer Malcolm Arnold. I have long been an advocate of this neglected 20th-century master. To think that there now exists a first-rate cycle of his nine symphonies (recorded under the composer’s supervision, with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, under conductor Andrew Penny) on a budget label leaves me staggered. Another “White Box” offers the nine symphonies, plus the two unnumbered early ones, of Anton Bruckner. Above all, this music demands a visionary conductor, and Naxos found one in the late Georg Tintner, who finished this cycle shortly before he died.
Looking ahead to future reviews of items in my Naxos backlog, I have multivolume releases of the works of English composer Alan Rawsthorne and Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, to name only two. As for the future, the label promises the enticing prospect of the complete symphonies of American master George Rochberg. I will never catch up, and that makes me happy.
Ariadne was abandoned on the island of Naxos by Theseus. Should you find yourself in a comparable situation, bring your CD player and you will find comfort in the Naxos label, well before Dionysus comes to console you.
Complete Symphonies Naxos 8.505178
Complete Symphonies Naxos 8.501101
Symphony No. 2 and Beatus Vir Naxos 8.555375
Three Symphonies Naxos 8.555862
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Don Giovanni Naxos Historical 8.110135-37
Piano Trios Naxos 8.555870
Piano Trio and Piano Quintet Naxos 8.555416