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Naxos Books Life and Music Series – “User-friendly” and “Impressive”

November 5, 2008

I’ve been reading a book. In fact, I have been reading two books. I didn’t intend to. I just picked up one which recently arrived in a parcel and started browsing. I didn’t expect to be drawn into it. I know the subject of the book well: the composer Joseph Haydn, about whom I have had to plough through some hefty tomes in my time.

It wasn’t an academic book. It certainly wasn’t a technical or pedagogical book. In fact, it was rather alluring in that it was so accessible, easy to read, informative and, even to someone who knows his Haydn, occasionally enlightening. It’s a good story, very well written by David Vickers, effortlessly flowing and engaging. What a gret and original composer was Haydn; and what a man.

Along the road (after lunch and a stroll) I picked up the other book, which had arrived with the Haydn. Again, the subject was familiar: Felix Mendelssohn. Same publisher, different author—Neil Wenborn—but an equally readable yarn about this most fantastically precocious of composers. Effortlessly, it seemed, the familiar tale of this extraordinary man drew me in.

Then I fell to musing on the two publications. They belong to a series published by Naxos, and are subtitled Life and Music. I mentioned the series en passant some months ago  in, of all places, our modest little CD review section. But they are worth more than that.  In fact, they are rather striking publications. Each of the two books is accompanied by a double CD with extracts of music by the composers that relate to the text.

Back within the books, there is a series of appendices, one of which features brief, concise and helpful annotations of the works from which the CD excerpts have been taken. There is another appendix which usefully contains lists of the personalities who were associates, influences, teachers and contemporaries of the composers. There is a further appendix that is a standard glossary, explaining the nuts and bolts of music, its language and frequently used musical terms. The books systematically dismantle barriers that might preclude access to a curious, though not necessarily literate, reader.

The books are consummately user-friendly and, as such, impressive. But there is more, much more. Each book in the Life and Music series comes with access to a dedicated website that contains complete performances of many of the works which features as extracts on the CDs.

This is astonishing. On the Mendelssohn website you can access the full Scottish and Italian Symphonies, the complete Violin Concerto and Midsummer Night’s Dream incidental music, the second, fifth and sixth string quartets, the full Octet and First Piano Trio, and sundry piano and organ works. Hours of music…

There are still some sniffy elitists (though a diminishing number, I suspect) who are dismissive of Naxos products. In my experience, such cynics tend to base their contempt of the super-budget brand on preconception, and are suspiciously unfamiliar with the product.

The Naxos Life and Music series is selling well and has been licensed to an American publisher. Foreign language rights have been sold in Portugal and Israel, and interest is now coming in from other European countries.

Specialist music writers will still need their tomes, but this eminently approachable and readable series offers a fascinatingly broad view. There are volumes on Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, Mahler, Wagner, Dvořák, Puccini and Tchaikovsky.

For my part, I am steadily collecting the lot. Enough said?

- Michael Tumelty, The Herald, 25 October 2008

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