The Philosophy of Naxos

Naxos, the Greek island where Ariadne was once abandoned by Theseus to the mercies of Dionysus, has now become a word familiar to all record buyers, the name of a CD label which has impressed collectors by its quality, range and, not least, its price.

There is no doubt that 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 price. The label and the mission have been astonishingly successful and this success lies in the flexibility of a stream-lined operation, the willingness to accept new repertoire ideas and the 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. 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 merit. 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 has made its way to China, but was also the first to start to bring to attention music of the earlier twentieth century that suffered temporary oblivion for political reasons. Something of the spirit of Marco Polo has inevitably found its way on to Naxos, where repertoire that once seemed of limited possible interest now finds a wider audience, matching ever-broadening public taste. Naxos repertoire now extends from Ambrosian and Gregorian Chant to Boulez and Lutosl/awski, taking in Orazio Vecchi and Monteverdi, the sons of Bach and others on the way. The ultimate aim is to offer a complete conspectus of classical music, a completeness already seen in the continuing recording of the five hundred or so concertos by Vivaldi and by the ambitious Organ Encyclopedia.

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; orchestra, 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 team, 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 (and often frustrating!) logistical jigsaw puzzle, into which all the 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, during three-hour segments, and few recordings can be completed in less than twelve hours of playing-time. After the engineer has made tests to ensure that the recorded sound has been carefully 'balanced' with performers play the work many times over, pausing to listen to 'playbacks' with the producer and engineer, to make sure that the sound, the accuracy of the playing and, even more important, the interpretation of the music, represents their wishes.

Working in the Control room, the engineer constantly supervises his 'balance', converting the different individual microphone sources to a stereo master, while the producer acting as a 'second pair of ears' for the performers (and with one eye on that ever-ticking clock!) reads a copy of the score, noting down the most - and the least - successful 'takes' of the performance. 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 in that 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'.

It has been suggested that it is in some way 'immoral' to splice one take with another, but in fairness to the artist (who will have played the work many times before,) and to the listener, who is entitled to hear the best that is available, the removal of minor imperfections is essential to the quality of the finished performance. It has also been noted many times that, while an inaccurate performance can be corrected, one cannot make a 'bad' performance 'good'. Splicing is only used to make sure that the listener derives the greatest enjoyment from a performance.

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 any 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 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.

It is worth mentioning at this stage that the digital recording system, whereby the sound is stored and reproduced via a computer, ensures that the listener hears a final product that has the same perfect recording quality as the original session, even though the production process has involved copying the original several times. Technology has advanced a long way since the 'bad old days' of tape "hiss" or "sputtering" microphones and, without going into baffling technical jargon, one might compare this with using a modern photo-copier against the old system of typing with sheets of carbon-paper. When you reach the sixth or seventh sheet, the carbon copy has begun to fade or lose clarity. Using a photo-copier, the fiftieth copy still has the same clarity, sharp focus and detail of the original. In future years, even better recording systems may be introduced, and collectors can be assured that the technical staff of Naxos, who constantly monitor technological advances, will be at the forefront of such developments.

When the master has been approved technically and musically, it is passed to a studio which adds the final 'read-out' information (Band numbers, second-by-second timing etc.) that will appear on a CD machine as the record plays. This also affords a last opportunity to check every detail of the process to date. 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.

It is evident from all this that even a single disc can represent many hundreds of hours of work: planning, preparation, recording, editing and manufacture. The many and varied CD's 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.