The Philosophy of Naxos
Naxos is a Greek island, home to the legend of Ariadne on which Richard Strauss based his opera Ariadne auf Naxos in 1912. It has now become a word familiar to all classical record buyers, the name of a CD label which has impressed collectors by its quality, range and - not least - its price.
Klaus Heymann and his colleagues and advisers in many countries share a strong belief in the Naxos principle: the provision of a wide range of good music, well played and recorded and available at a relatively modest outlay.
The label and the mission have been astonishingly successful and the roots of this success lie in the flexibility of a stream-lined operation, the willingness to accept new repertoire ideas and an emphasis on the music itself rather than on the performer. Naxos does, of course, record musicians of great distinction but it has, in general, avoided the common practice of putting the cart before the horse, the player before the composer.
Put quite simply, at Naxos the music always comes first.
Concentration on music rather than performer eliminates duplication of repertoire. There is no need to produce rival sets of standard repertoire under different conductors in what must now seem suicidal self-competition. The Naxos principle has been, by and large, to issue one version only, which stands on its own merits.
The choice of repertoire and of performers is often a matter of local knowledge on the part of representatives of the company in different parts of the world. This internationalisation has had the effect of opening new doors, of introducing music by composers of distinguished local reputation to a much wider public.
In this respect Naxos goes hand-in-hand with its full-price sister label, Marco Polo, which has won its own reputation for pioneering exploration of music that has often been undeservedly neglected. Marco Polo was also one of the first labels to bring to attention music of the earlier twentieth century that had suffered temporary oblivion for political or other historical reasons.
Something of the spirit of Marco Polo has inevitably found its way to Naxos, where repertoire that once seemed of limited possible interest now finds a wider audience, meeting the demands of an ever-broadening public taste.
The Naxos repertoire now extends from Ambrosian and Gregorian Chant to Boulez and Rautavaara, Penderecki and Lutosławski, taking in Orazio Vecchi and Monteverdi, the sons of Bach, modern and established opera and a host of other composers and genres on the way.
The ultimate aim is to offer a complete conspectus or overview of classical music, of a completeness already glimpsed in the continuing recording of the five hundred or so concertos by Vivaldi, the 75-disc compilation of the piano compositions of Franz Liszt and the staggeringly ambitious Organ Encyclopedia.
Innovative projects include the highly successful American Classics, Japanese Classics and the Historical recording series. Naxos is also highly active in music education, online and offline, and works with important publishers in the field. Another important development for the company has been Audiobooks, frequently incorporating splendid examples of Naxos music.
The recording sessions
Because every recording involves a diversity of forces, long-term planning is a key element of such a vast operation. Individual contracts must be negotiated and prepared; orchestras, conductors, soloists and choirs must find available time in busy concert schedules; top-quality producers and engineers, often travelling from one country to another, are chosen from a carefully selected list, and there is a constant search for ‘ideal’ halls and recording locations whose acoustics will enhance the quality of the recorded sound.
The result is a complicated logistical jigsaw puzzle, into which all the various pieces must fit.
Some collectors may imagine that a recording session is rather like a concert: that the musicians play through a work, listen to the tape and, satisfied that there are no glaring mistakes, go home. There are even some collectors who assume that recordings, like radio broadcasts, are simply tapings of ‘live’ performances, with extraneous audience noises removed. This is seldom, if ever, true.
Sessions usually take place in a specially selected hall, in two-to-three-hour segments, and few recordings can be completed in less than twelve hours. At least twelve microphones are used and Digital Audio Tape is the preferred medium.
The sessions require detailed application and concentration from everyone involved, and many musicians have likened a recording to “playing three concerts in one afternoon”. It is a demanding and exhausting test of their abilities and artists often find they are called upon to distill a lifetime of study and preparation of a work into that one critical three-hour period.
When everyone is satisfied that the best has been achieved, the producer and engineer return to base to begin the editing process. Once again, this can be a lengthy operation: ‘takes’ are re-examined, the musicians’ preferences are noted, and the producer builds a master-plan of the score, indicating which parts of each performance should be incorporated. The sections are then ‘spliced’ together, to create the final ‘master’.
For historical performances, Naxos now employs the industry’s leading remastering engineers: Mark Obert-Thorn and Ward Marston. Owing to improvements in sound restoration technology, Naxos’s Historical releases often sound better than remasterings of the same recordings done just a few years ago by the same restorers for full-price labels like Biddulph and Pearl.
The final seal of approval
Finally, when the master in completed, it is sent to the artist for approval. No Naxos disc is issued without this important ‘seal of approval’, which allows the performer last-minute corrections that may have been overlooked, or even second thoughts about the interpretation. While producers and engineers are working on the recorded material, Naxos headquarters is preparing the various elements that contribute to the final package. Specialists in the field write album notes to accompany the music, which often involves a worldwide quest for the most informed authors, particularly in the case of a recording ‘premiere’.
The Art Department has the task of finding new and attractive cover designs, using extensive research into great art collections or, frequently, commissioning new artwork. Timings must be collated, publishers must be acknowledged, biographies updated and an enormous amount of detail, specific to each production, is assembled.
Once all the ingredients have been approved, the studio creates a master CD for the factory and pressing plant which, through a series of processes, (not unlike the negative from which a finished photograph is made) can manufacture finished discs for domestic use. Every Naxos CD is a sophisticated, high-precision instrument which, through the application of the latest digital technology, reproduces the finest musical performances in brilliant and natural-sounding recordings.
Even a single disc can represent many hundreds of hours of work: planning, preparation, recording, editing and manufacture. The many and varied CDs that fill the special Naxos stands in records stores around the world represent the achievements of an international army of specialists who have helped to create a record company that is already in the premier position in many countries.