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Book review: Klaus Heymann and Naxos the unlikley titans of classical music recording

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Naxos founder Klaus Heymann will visit Atelier Grigorian on Sept. 17.

The Biblical writers didn’t anticipate a scenario where David might become Goliath, and triumph not with force or cunning, but by watching a series of mistakes. Substitute the name Naxos for David and the recording industry’s big labels for Goliath, and you have the makings of a fascinating tale — one that has given many Toronto musicians the opportunity to be recorded and heard around the world.

It’s a tale Klaus Heymann, the founder of Naxos, clearly wants told as his company — now a colossus in the music business — celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

Heymann commissioned one of his own employees, former classical music critic and writer Nicolas Soames, to write a book about it.

The result, a 450-page doorstop in a plain blue-and-white dust jacket titled The Story of Naxos: The Extraordinary Story of the Independent Record Label That Changed Classical Recording for Ever, is predictably one-sided and uncritical, making it one of the longest-reading public relations exercises in recent memory.

But, taken with a pinch of critical salt, it is nonetheless a fascinating story of a savvy and very, very lucky German entrepreneur who, practically by accident, proved how there was a better way of recording and distributing music on a global scale than what the big labels had managed to achieve.

The Story of Naxos gets its official Toronto launch tomorrow (Sept. 17) at Atelier Grigorian in Yorkville, at 5 p.m., with Naxos founder Klaus Heymann in attendance. (You can find all the details here.)

Buried deep inside the tome, between a reprint of a 2010 interview with Gramophone magazine and an appendix listing the awards Naxos recordings have received over the years, is a little parting message from Heymann:

When I am asked the secret of my success, I reply:
1. I didn’t read music.
2. I didn’t play an instrument.
3. I hadn’t worked for a record label.

As we find out very early on in the story, Heymann had never intended to get into the music business. But he found himself working a pretty sketchy-sounding arrangement selling electronic equipment to American armed forces personnel from his emigré home base in Hong Kong during the Vietnam War.

One thing led to another and he was packaging and distributing music in East Asia, which eventually led to the creation of the Marco Polo label in the early 1980s.

With the keen critical ear of his professional violinist wife Takako Nishizaki to guide him, Heymann discovered he could package and sell great works from the Western classical canon using competent (and dirt-cheap) musicians from the more open countries in the former Soviet block, especially in Hungary and the former Czechoslovakia.

Heyman would buy out all the rights to anything he wanted to distribute with a lump-sum payment, foregoing the complex and expensive fee-plus-royalty system used by traditional labels and then recoup his investment by selling discount albums in bulk, in relative perpetuity.

I’m old enough to remember the Naxos display that appeared at Toronto’s Book Cellar independent record chain in 1989 or 1990. It was set off to one side, prominently advertising its name and the price. It was $6.99 or $7.99, if I remember properly.

I remember scratching my head when I saw familiar repertoire being played by such unknowns as pianist Jenö Jandó and the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra.

The musical snob in me was convinced this would be nasty stuff (for years, I carried around an early-1980s LP of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue made by the Bucharest Radio Orchestra that was so bad it was gut-splittingly hilarious — perfect listening with geeky friends after one-too-many glasses of Algerian plonk).

But I also didn’t have money to spend $22.99 per new CD, and I was a veteran discount-bin diver who had built my personal listening-and-learning library out of random finds dictated by my $5-per-album budget. So the Naxos price point won out over name recognition, and I started sampling the company’s wares.

Some albums were great, especially the work of the Kodály Quartet, which seemed to have the monopoly on chamber music at the label during its first decade. Some were only marginally better than my Gershwin LP from Romania.

By the time I began reviewing CDs in this century, Naxos releases — still selling for less than the competition — were every bit as likely to be as good as those coming from Deutsche Grammophon or Chandos or Harmonia Mundi. Except that Naxos was tackling repertoire that might otherwise have been left to gather dust on library shelves.

Thanks to Naxos, Toronto violinist-turned-conductor Kevin Mallon and his Aradia Ensemble have a presence far stronger in the recording world than they have ever been able to establish in live performance. (In fact, I believe Mallon’s Toronto Chamber Orchestra, well represented on Naxos, has never actually presented a concert series to a regular audience.)

Soprano Karina Gauvin’s interpretation of Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 with conductor Marin Alsop — one of Alsop’s many recordings for Naxos — is one of my desert-island discs.

The label says there are currently more than 100 albums featuring Canadian artists among the 7,000-odd titles in its catalogue — all of it available in an online music library that has become the de facto reference in schools and libraries around the world.

It hasn’t always been easy for musicians, though, especially during the economic slump and closing of independent record stores over the past half-dozen years. Even though a recording may be ready to go out the door, Naxos can wait one, two, three or more years to release it if there’s too much of a backlog in the company’s global pipeline.

Naxos is also a massive distributor, having taken on dozens of other labels as the recording industry consolidates. Its catalogue is the largest in the world, and will, if Heymann’s words hold true, one day soon be a one-stop shop for streaming audio and video as well as an online music encyclopedia covering the bulk of Western art music.

Soames is good at pointing out how Heymann was good at taking advantage of opportunities when they came up, often making split-second decisions that wouldn’t reveal their worth for a long time hence.

(Even the company’s name, it turns out was an accident, the result of a list of Greek Island names Heymann’s lawyer recommended for a shell company the entrepreneur was setting up in order to buy a condo in Hong Kong.)

Soames is  good about letting Heymann do much of the speaking in the chapters that directly relate to the entrepreneur’s business decisions. And besides company history, we get nice asides relating to some of the artists who helped build the company artistic reputation in the early years.

It’s no secret that almost no one in the music business — pop or classical — has any clue what the future has in store. Reading the story of Naxos serves as a great reminder that great ideas seemingly appear out of the blue all the time, and there’s probably a young Klaus Heymann out there somewhere right now who may loom large in our musical lives in a way we can’t even imagine right now.

Here is a link to the official 25th anniversary page on the Naxos site.

John Terauds

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