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Mr. Heymann's Opus: The Naxos Catalog

By Barrymore Laurence Scherer, Wall Street Journal, January 15, 2003

"Fifteen or 20 years ago relatively few people collected rare repertoire," says Klaus Heymann, CEO of Naxos Records. "But today, with their shelves full of standard Brahms and Beethoven, far more buyers are interested."

During 2002, Naxos, recognized as one of the most adventuresome of all independent classical labels, celebrated its 15th anniversary. Based in Hong Kong, Naxos and sister label Marco Polo (online at are the source of rarities and standard repertoire at bargain prices. The rarities, including music by such 19th-century worthies as Joachim Raff, Louis Spohr and Anton Rubinstein, give us a chance to reassess attractive music popular in its day but now hardly ever recorded and almost never played in concert halls. The extraordinary scope and volume of the Naxos catalog set it apart.

Mr. Heymann, 66, notes that over the past 15 years or more, not only have market conditions favored his adventurism, but the market has also shifted "to one in which even contemporary music can sell well." He points to conspicuous success with recordings of etudes by Hungarian avant-gardist Gyorgy Ligeti and the orchestral works of Polish masters Witold Lutoslawsky and Krzysztof Penderecki, not to mention 25,000 copies sold of a disc of Pierre Boulez sonatas.

More important, at a time when major classical labels are seriously tightening their belts, Naxos thrives. "Our business model is simple," says Mr. Heymann, who studied literature and languages at Frankfurt University, the Sorbonne and King's College, London, before arriving in Hong Kong during the Vietnam War to head up the new bureau there of the American military's "Overseas Weekly." "You record things people want to buy. And you produce it, market it, distribute it and sell it, all at a cost that lets you make a profit."

Part of this strategy is to avoid big-name artists and orchestras, most of them under contract to the major labels anyway. Instead, Naxos uses orchestras of more regional than international status, such as the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland or the Queensland (Australia) Symphony. Though the artists receive only a flat fee, they get recordings into the marketplace, showcasing themselves beyond their local audience, which helps establish international credibility that can attract funding. "Only orchestras such as the Berlin or Vienna Philharmonic possibly still receive royalties," he says. "Nowadays, quite a few orchestras come with ready-made productions and offer these on the basis of token royalties or token fees."

There are surprises along the way: among them Naxos's splendid recordings of Rossini's "Barber of Seville" and "Tancredi" with singers who include the Polish contralto Ewa Podles and American tenor Stanford Olsen, names better known today than when the recordings came out in the mid-1990s.

Mr. Heymann began making records after marrying the Japanese violinist Takako Nishizaki. In 1982 they started Marco Polo, to record Chinese symphonic music with the Hong Kong Philharmonic and Singapore Symphony. When their music directors asked to record Western repertoire as well, Mr. Heymann reasoned that while there would be little market for their performances of standard works, there would be a demand for rare repertoire. "If you could get Respighi's Concerto Gregoriano only on Marco Polo, you weren't going to worry that it wasn't played by the Berlin Philharmonic."

He then founded Naxos in 1987, concentrating at first on budget releases of standard repertoire. Gradually he shifted to more obscure material while reserving Marco Polo for such large-scale projects as the complete dance music of Johann Strauss II and its sequel, the complete oeuvre of his brother Josef (now up to volume 25). Mr. Heymann credits his ability to undertake such ambitious ventures partly to his strict cost control -- personally approving every budget, signing every check and driving a hard bargain: "A conductor needs a second harp at $500 a day to record a work? Fine, but he'll have to schedule that harp for only one session, not sitting around for two or three days."

Licensing has also proven an especially lucrative source of income. For instance, any classical music played on the TV shows "Sex and the City" and "The Sopranos" is licensed from Naxos. "Our specialist agent on the West Coast is in contact with all the studios. Since we own all rights to our recordings we are in a position to offer the required rights within 24 hours, and we have practically everything anybody would ever want."

Naxos classics play aboard the bateaux mouches that ply the Seine in Paris, and they are piped into every parking garage in Stockholm. "Our Swedish licensing manager had the idea to approach Stockholm's municipal parking authority. I think right now he is also working on their subway system." Earnings also come from licensing music to textbook publishers. "That income finances all the crazy things we do, like recording William Henry Fry," he says.

Fry (1813-64) is just one of many overshadowed composers whose music is featured on Naxos's American Classics series, currently nearing 100 discs, and counting. Chosen by an advisory committee including H. Wiley Hitchcock, dean of American-music scholars, the range is exceptional, embracing 19th-century pioneers like Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Edmond Dede and George Templeton Strong, fin-de-siecle luminaries Edward MacDowell, George Whitefield Chadwick and Frederick Converse, and a who's-who of the 20th century -- from conservatives Arthur Foote, Henry Hadley and Howard Hanson, to Charles Ives and Roy Harris, to younger postmoderns like Lowell Liebermann and Carter Pann. Among the latest entries is the world-premiere recording of Michael Torke's percussion concerto, "Rapture," and a commendable account of Edward Thomas's opera "Desire Under the Elms," completed in 1975 but still awaiting a major staging. In addition are multivolume series of lighter symphonic music by Victor Herbert, John Philip Sousa and Ferde Grofe.

To avoid American unions, much of this music is performed by far-flung orchestras, from the Slovak Radio Symphony to the National Symphony of Ukraine, as well as amenable American ensembles from Amarillo, Texas, to Hot Springs, Ark. Critics at Gramophone, International Record Review and the American Record Guide have often praised these performances.

Meanwhile, Naxos Nostalgia and Jazz Legends are other branches, offering modern transcriptions of original pop music and jazz recordings from the first half of the 20th century. Skeptics might carp that Naxos is trying to be all things to all buyers. Yet the variety of its offerings seems to stem from Mr. Heymann's own observation that "I run Naxos as a business. But because I really love classical music, I look at it as a hobby as well."

Mr. Scherer last wrote on the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony for the Journal.

Reprinted from The Wall Street Journal ©2003
Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.


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