January 26, 2009
I always think that classical music—like fine wine—offers up even more rewards the more effort you put into it. Of course, its effect can be as immediate (and potent) as a glass of some first-growth Bordeaux whether you know what you're listening to/drinking or not. But make the effort to get to know a bit about it and the rewards are huge. That can mean a full-on immersion in the composer's biography, or listening to the music with the score (if you can read it of course) or merely absorbing the sleeve-notes. In the world of downloading we've often had to take a step back when it comes to access to supporting material—rarely have we been offered notes, text, even a "track listing". Thankfully this is becoming less of an issue (at least when you're dealing with music from the independents—the majors are still a long way off).
One company that has always put the consumer first is Naxos —sensitive to people's needs whether they're beginners or aficionados, and mindful of their wallets (especially important at the moment). Well, responding to consumers' desire for decent sound (though you do still hear some remarkably ill-informed comments being bandied around about MP3 quality), Naxos, via its digital music store, Classics Online, has upgraded its downloads to 320kbps from 192. That's a substantial lift, and while not lossless it's all but indistinguishable to everyone but the so-called Golden Eared (and I've long wondered whether they are actually interested in the music or merely the sound it makes). 320kbps is a highly satisfactory bit-rate for listening to music, particularly if you're doing it on the go (MP3 player or via your laptop). I've played 320kbps music files through my hi-fi and have been hard-pressed to tell the difference between them and a CD.
The even better news, apart from a decent hike in quality, is that if you've already bought music from Classics Online you will be able to upgrade your music files from 192 to 320kbps at no extra charge. Classics Online will e-mail their customers as soon as the relevant files are available at the higher bit-rate (and knowing how fast Naxos moves, that could well have happened by the time you read this).
Another wing of the Naxos empire is the Naxos Music Library, a truly splendid resource for the music lover who has a healthy curiosity. On this vast website you can find about 26,000 albums, which computes to some 370,800 or so tracks. Each is available to be streamed at a variety of bit-rates (the CD-quality option is very impressive indeed). A pop-up player allows you to navigate the disc's contents and it also gives you the option to load Microsoft's Silverlight player.
But where the NML scores over its competitors (such as they are) is in the area of background material. Click on a composer from the main listing and you will be presented with a biography and a discography that, with a single click, will take you direct to the album —and within seconds you can be listening to the music. If you want to consult an opera's libretto (though this section is relatively restricted), there are full sung texts, though without translations. You can also read the sleeve-notes from the recording, plus, of course, all the individual track information.
So much for the material immediately surrounding each recording, but the NML offers a whole lot more. For music students there's a special area set aside as a Study Resource with a wealth of introductory essays and study guides - and there are links to the relevant musical examples. So if you enter the UK A-level area, you can find essays about many different musical genres. Take, say, the symphony, and you are given a brief overview of the genre, then a "What to listen to" section and a list of the music that forms a part of the syllabus's assignments. And even if Music A-level is but a distant memory, it still makes for instructive reading and listening.
Other interesting parts of the site include a guide to pronunciation (you can actually hear the word said), a superb guide to music's fundamental terms and there's a whole subsite devoted to the instruments of the orchestra. This has been written with children in mind but for any age it's a terrific insight into the various elements of a symphony orchestra - and it's so good being able to hear the sound of what's being demonstrated or discussed. There's plenty here for children, and with music education under threat in so many countries, here's a great place to steer the inquisitive.
There's so much here that I'm sure I've only scratched the surface. The Naxos Music Library was clearly created for schools, universities and conservatoires, but if you want to explore music—its breadth as well as depth—it's a terrific resource. So what does it cost? Individuals can subscribe for €150 per year, though institutions should contact the Naxos Music Library for terms and conditions. For a music loving friend it would be a hugely rewarding Christmas present. And you don't need to be particularly computer-literate to use it!
- James Jolly, Editor, Gramophone, December 2008