Gramophone/FM Classic awarded Naxos the classical label of the year award in 2005. Based on the evidence so far, I am prepared to concede the award to Naxos in 2006. I am supplied monthly with a list of releases from Naxos and from its distributed labels—such as CPO, Profil, and Marco Polo—that is simply staggering in its richness. I could easily devote this column to covering only CDs from this source and leave you with more than you could possibly absorb. I cannot take it all in, and that makes me very happy.
Klaus Heyman, a German expatriate in Hong Kong, founded the brilliant Naxos enterprise in 1987. The major labels probably thought he was an inconsequential pest, recording Eastern European orchestras and artists in the basic repertory and beyond. He has had the last laugh. The major labels are retrenching, if not disappearing altogether. They have become close to inconsequential. Naxos and its affiliates are filling the void with releases that show enormous imagination, superb quality, and a price that cannot be beat. In 2005, Naxos took 15 Grammy nominations. Apparently, quality sells, especially at the Naxos budget price. More than ten million CDs per year fly out of Naxos’s warehouses. I can tell you why in quick staccato fashion, as I try to cover some recent riches from this source that are beyond the dreams of kings.
Naxos does nothing small. It often undertakes recordings of the complete works of fairly unknown composers. It has now completed a three-CD traversal of William Alwyn’s five symphonies, plus his Harp Concerto and Sinfonietta, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic orchestra, under David Lloyd-Jones. Alwyn was one of the ambidextrous British composers of the 20th century who could write both splendid film scores and concert music. Think Malcolm Arnold, Arnold Bax, and Vaughan Williams. His first two symphonies are a bit discursive but demonstrate Alwyn’s bold, rambunctious style. These are works of real sprit and passionate drama. The last three symphonies are superb. The third draws heavily on Gustav Holt in its riveting intensity and telegraphic urgency (Naxos 8.557648). It is very close in stature to William Walton’s great Symphony No. 1. The Harp Concerto, subtitled Lyra Angelica (Angel’s Song), is about as lovely as music gets, and ranks with William Mathias’s Harp Concerto as one of the finest of the 20th century (Naxos 8.557647). All of this music is directly communicative in what Alwyn called his “steadfast adherence to the basic essentials of tonality and melody.” There is competition in this repertory from the fine recordings on the Chandos label, but they cost almost twice as much.
While on the subject of British music, Naxos offers a new recording of Edmund Rubbra’s Violin Concerto, coupled with two other works. Rubbra, an Alwyn contemporary, was essentially a mystic who achieved an extraordinary raptness in his music. This work is no exception, as heard in this lovely performance by violinist Krysia Osostowicz and the Ulster Orchestra, under Takuo Yuasa (Naxos 8.555255). This beautiful music will lead you to his great symphonic cycle.
I must move on to other countries and continents so that you grasp the extraordinary reach of Naxos. Two years ago, I was very taken by the BIS release of two Camargo Guarnieri symphonies that helped to answer the question of what happened to Brazilian music after Villa-Lobos. Naxos now fills in the answer with Guarnieri’s Piano Concertos Nos. 1, 2, and 3, played by the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra with pianist Max Barros, under Thomas Conlin (Naxos 8.557666). These works are tremendous fun, brimming with raucous life, bubbling with melodies, and swinging with syncopated rhythms. If Gershwin had been born in Brazil, he might have done something like this.
On to the Iberian peninsula. Naxos reveals the attractions of Antonio Jose Martinez Palacios (1902-1936) in several works of great charm that mix Spanish folk music from northern Spain with the style of French impressionism. The Sinfonia Castellana and other works, as presented by the Castile and Leon Symphony Orchestra, under Alejandro Posada, are thoroughly captivating in this continuation of Naxos’s Spanish Classics series (Naxos 8.557634).
Naxos has also sponsored an American Classics series that is invaluable. Go to the Naxos USA Web site to see what it has done (www. naxos.com). I have covered many of these releases that have restored—or give to us for the first time—treasures from the likes of Samuel Barber, David Diamond, and George Rochberg. The American Classics series also contains some real surprises. I know and am fond of the music of Ernst Levy, a Swiss symphonist who immigrated to the United States. His son, Frank Ezra Levy (b. 1930), apparently followed in his father’s footsteps. This was news to me until Naxos released a CD with his Third Symphony, Cello Concerto, and two shorter works (Naxos 8.559234). These are highly accomplished, very attractive pieces that actually go beyond Levy Senior’s command of formal structures, given his predilection for the suite style. This music is receiving an overdue hearing in these excellent performances by the RTE National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, with cellist Scott Ballantyne, under Takuo Yuasa. This release epitomizes Naxos’s sense of adventure.
Another Naxos strength has been its 18th Century Symphony and Chamber series. If you are familiar with Paris, you may have heard of the famous concert venue, Salle Pleyel. Ignaz Pleyel made his fortune as a piano manufacturer, but he was also an excellent composer, whom Mozart judged as capable of someday replacing Haydn. Naxos provides fresh evidence in two CDs of Pleyel’s six Quartets, Op. 2, played by the Enso Quartet (Naxos 8.557496 and 8.557497). These lovely works sound like Haydn and Boccherini conjoined. Charm can be profound. Listen to these exquisite works and you will see what I mean. I love them.
On the symphonic side of the 18th century, Naxos offers four symphonies by Ernst Wilhelm Wolf, performed by the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra, under Nicolas Pasquet (8.557132). These are invigorating, rhythmically alive works that once again demonstrate the amazing quality of what has been overlooked in the shadow of the supreme musical genius of Mozart. They illustrate my thesis that the late 18th century was close to incomparable in the quality of its production. To hear what passed for ordinary at that time, listen to the Naxos CD of Karl von Ordonez’s five symphonies, performed by the Toronto Camerata, under Kevin Mallon (8.557482). There is a certain sameness in the rhythmic regularity that may keep these works from the first rank, but they are still worth hearing to give one perspective on how very good “ordinary” used to be.
Johann Nepomuk Hummel, student of Mozart, had a foot in both the 18th and 19th centuries. Naxos has continued its releases of his music, recently including his Violin Concerto, and Piano and Violin Concerto, with the Russian Philharmonic, under Gregory Rose (8.557595). It was Beethoven who buried Hummel, and his delightful music is worth resurrecting.
Closer to Beethoven was his secretary and apprentice, Ferdinand Ries. The CPO label, distributed by Naxos, issued a revelatory set of Ries’s complete symphonies, some of which bore out Beethoven’s complaint that Ries imitated him too much. Now CPO has given us the first volume of what may, one hopes, be a complete series of his 26 string quartets, played by the Schuppanzigh Quartet (CPO 777 014-2). The two Op. 18 works on this release show that Ries was not always so beholden to Beethoven after all. These works emote directly in a way more familiar from the world of Schubert. The Op. 18 quartets were unpublished. If that is any sign of the quality of the published works, we are in for a major discovery. Naxos has also released Vol. 1 of Ries’s complete piano concertos, including Op. 151 and Op. 123, with pianist Christopher Hinterhuber and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, under conductor Uwe Grodd (Naxos 8.557638). If someone had told me that they were lost works by Hummel, I might believe him. They are, like Hummel, halfway between the world of Mozart and Beethoven and that of Chopin. In any case, they do show that the early 19th century continued, in a different way, the extraordinary musical standards of the 18th.
I am out of space and nowhere near covering the last several months’ treasures from Naxos. Now do you see what I mean?