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The classical listening library par excellence

December 22, 2008

A recent article on CNet, "The top 5 music-streaming services on the Web" reminded me quite forcefully that we folks who prefer classical music (whatever that term really means) are at a notable remove from the general population, at least judging from this particular article.

I make this observation in the light that these "top 5" services mentioned in the CNet article are all rather light on classical features — and also considering that the A-Number-One streaming service for classical listeners wasn't mentioned.

That service is the Naxos Music Library, coming to you from the same folks who run ClassicsOnline, an excellent download site mentioned several times in the past in this column, such as here and here. While other streaming sites such as Rhapsody or the much-maligned (by me) Zune Marketplace might offer streaming, none can offer the NML's breadth, depth, and lofty educational mission.

A typical home page on the NML

The "Figures At A Glance" feature on the top-right corner of the home page says it all: as of December 11, 2008 the site hosts 26,695 individual discs, making up a total of 380,787 tracks. Now, that isn't anywhere near the millions of tracks available on sites such as iTunes, but those aren't streaming sites, and the bulk of their catalog is non-classical; the NML is all-streaming and mostly classical (save some jazz, world music, and theater).

Although Naxos itself is the dominant label on the NML (as you would expect), many other independent labels join in, including such well-known classical companies such as Ondine, Capriccio, Hungaraton, Hänssler, Klavier, and many more. The "big four" aren't included -- nothing from EMI or Sony or Universal, etc. But on the whole the lack of the big boys isn't particularly troublesome; the NML catalog is sufficiently vast to plug all of the holes, and then some, unless there are certain artists and/or ensembles that you simply must have.

And even then, major ensembles at least formerly on the big labels are present, thanks to the Naxos Historical and Naxos Classical Archives collections. These present a vast, rich treasure trove of famed recordings dating back to the early years of recorded history. Given the draconian nature of U.S. copyright laws, many of these aren't available in the United States, which is a pity. One can only hope for an awakening on the part of the Congress...but don't hold your breath.

Subscriptions to the NML come at three levels, depending on the audio quality. If you're buying your own subscription, it's definitely worth the extra money to opt for the "CD" quality; the difference between that and "Near CD" or "FM" is quite noticeable. (My college subscribes to NML at the "Near CD", whereas my personal subscription is "CD", thus I can definitely attest to the distinction.) None are particularly expensive, and represent an astonishing value for the money.

One technical note for Macintosh users: the NML is mostly Windows Media based, not native to the Macintosh platform. You have your choice of using the Flip4Mac plugin, which adds Windows Media codecs to your Mac's built-in QuickTime playback, or you can download the NML's own custom player which requires installing Microsoft's Silverlight plugin. I've tried both, and I can say that the custom player is a considerably better choice; I found playback to stutter a bit using Flip4Mac, whereas the custom player handles its task beautifully in both Safari and Firefox. (I haven't tried it with any other Macintosh-based browsers.) Of course, if you're a Windows user, you're pretty much all set as is.

The fine folks at Naxos seem to have been aware that the NML would be a worthy subscription for almost any music library, and as a result, the service sports a strong educational component. (It is, in fact, accredited in the UK as an e-learning resource.)

To begin with, individual works are accompanied by a "Work Details" button which, upon clicking, opens up a 3-tab information area. On the top comes a bit of overall information -- such as the composition's date, its instrumentation (extremely valuable for folks seeking repertory), the publisher, and the precise duration. Below come the three tabs with "Work Information", "Work Analysis", and "Available Recordings".

The first two tabs are very much works-in-progress and so they often lack information as of yet. However, the "Available Recordings" tab is a jewel for those of us who love to compare performances, given that they list all of the NML's available recordings of a particular work.

A typical info page on the NML

Another feature is the "Study Area", a series of web pages with links to NML selections organized around the curricula of music schools in the UK and Australia. The pages are written by Simon Rushby, head of music at Reigate Grammar School, and offer well-organized and clear presentations of their material. In fact, I've directed a number of my own students to the NML's history pages, given their clarity and the thoughtfulness of the listening selections.

Although the "Study Area" is directed towards secondary-school students, they are an invaluable resource for anyone who would appreciate a gracious look and listen through music history. I notice the beginnings of a World Music section as well -- bravo!

A handy-dandy pronunciation guide (recordings, not phonetic symbols) is a boon to the perplexed; maybe this will help kids learn not to call him HEY-din, or Duh-vor-ack.

Audio books supplement the Study Area, together with sections for podcasts and opera libretti (mostly without translations, however), an extensive glossary, and a very handy guide to music's fundamental terminology.

In short, one could roll one's own basic education in music from the NML alone.

As great as the educational resources are, they pale next to the sheer scope of the NML's catalog. A click on the composer list is quite an eye-opener.

  • 15 composers named "Adams", not just my former teacher John Adams but including Adamses named Leslie, Richard, Stanley, and Steve.
  • 12 named "Andersen", 19 named "Anderson", and 9 named "Andersson".
  • "Z" composers start with Albert Heinrich Zabel (1834 - 1910) and end with Samuel Zyman (b. 1956), with a good hundred-ish names inbetween.
  • They've got 7 composers whose last name begins with "Q" but doesn't have a following "U". (Too bad you can't use them in Scrabble...).
  • 16 Bachs are available, although probably neither Jan nor Erik are direct descendants.

Well, I could play this particular game all day, but you get the general idea. There is a staggering range of material here.

According to the website:

The aim of NML is to eventually offer access to every work of classical music ever recorded and to become the ultimate resource in the classical music field. In future, users will also be able to view the instrumentation of all orchestral and chamber music works and to access comprehensive analyses of all the most important works.

NML is aimed at and used by…

  • Teachers and students at educational institutions such as universities, conservatories and other music schools, primary and secondary schools
  • Public libraries
  • Performing arts organizations such as symphony orchestras, opera companies and performing arts societies
  • Artist managements, performing arts venues and other professional organizations
  • Classical radio stations
  • Professional musicians [instrumental soloists, orchestra musicians, conductors]
  • Individual subscribers [serious music collectors, journalists, retailers]

If you're a regular reader of S.F. Classical Music Examiner, you undoubtedly belong somewhere in the above list. So I strongly recommend checking out the NML, either via a trial subscription, or by a visit to your local library.

- Scott Foglesong, SF Classical Music Examiner, 11 December 2008


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