Heymann auf Naxos
Klaus Heymann is a late bloomer. At the age of fifty his career
took a sharp turn. At first it was nothing more than an experimental
diversion but when the Naxos CD industry took off, it became
a serious attempt to stay one step ahead of the bigger, more
cashed-up recording companies.
I meet Heymann at the headquarters of Naxos’s Australian distributor in Sydney’s northern suburbs. He is not
the stereotype of the high-powered executive who in little less
than two decades has turned the recording industry on its head.
I expected a dragon and I’m amazed he hasn’t sent a representative
to answer my questions. In fact he insists I ask any question
I like. So I ask him how old he is. “Sixty-eight!”
Slim, tall (at a guess 180 cms or 6 feet)
with a mass of flowing grey hair that threatens to cover his
face when animated, he has an eye that looks into the distance
only when he’s thinking aloud; the rest of the time it’s eye-ball
to eye-ball. Dressed in a black shirt, matching trousers and
a grey houndstooth check jacket he looks like a fifty year-old
version of Boris Becker. And like Becker, he loves tennis. In
fact his first real job was as a tennis coach at Frankfurt University
where he graduated before embarking on a sales career with an
American newspaper, The Overseas Weekly. Following a
short interval working for audio-equipment giant Max Braun,
he returned to the newspaper business as the Hong Kong representative
of his original employer.
The year was 1967. Twenty years later, Heymann
started his own company. “It’s so much easier to start your
own business in Hong Kong,” he says. “They practically encourage
it.” He used to distribute cameras, watches and audio equipment.
This led to the sole distributorship of the Bose, Revox and
Studer audio equipment. As a sideline he began to organise classical
Creating the Naxos CD label “was a very
simple business idea”, he recalls. “At the time CD prices were
very expensive compared to the prices of LPs and cassettes.
In terms of today’s exchange rates an LP cost US$5 and CDs retailed
at US$20. People simply didn’t have the money. Initially I started
by licensing thirty masters from a production company in Munich
but then I found the masters were being licensed to other companies
as well so after some thought I decided to either lay it to
rest or start producing them myself.”
He decided to go into production. Not having
the money to finance big orchestras, “they wouldn’t have recorded
for us anyway”, he went to Czechoslovakia and Hungary where
he had connections and soon the first Naxos recordings - Smetana’s
Die Moldau and Other Czech Favorites and three Beethoven
Sonatas – were cut. More popular classics followed, what Heymann
terms ‘the golden oldies’. The Naxos name came from the title
of a shelf company he had used to buy an apartment in Hong Kong.
From those humble beginnings the Naxos empire has grown to the current 3200 releases.
“It should reach close to 3300 recordings by the end of 2006,”
says Heymann. In addition, in 19 years Naxos has received more
than 500 Penguin Guide 3-star ratings and over 100 Editor’s
choice awards from The Gramophone magazine.
But how can Naxos remain viable especially when utilising
the same orchestras and artists as their competition? “The answer
is simple. Our consumer-friendly price and wide distribution
allows us to spread recording costs across 10,000 to 15,000
Currently Naxos has 15% of the market share in the United Kingdom, roughly 35 to 40% in Scandinavia, 20% in Spain and Germany and (according to Soundscan) is the leading
independent classical music label in the United States.
The label encompasses not only
classical music but jazz, light classics, musicals, the spoken
word and poetry. Lately the internet has been used to stream
a host of titles. They currently operate four different
streaming services and are about to launch a dedicated classical
music download service, www.classicsonline.com.
A free trial period is on offer.
But it has not always been a case of champagne
and canapés. The odd glitch has occurred. The jazz label for
example (alas under our own Mike Nock) has failed to make an
impression on the US market.
The operatic section is still very viable,
however, and Naxos releases one opera almost every
month with most being re-issues of vinyl favourites. In charge
of the restoration is Mark Obert-Thorn. Heymann says he is “one
of the best in the business….. a musician primarily, not just
a technician …… and that is why his sound is a lot better than
the original masters.”
The challenges in restoring old LPs, and
in some cases 78s, are enormous. For example, talking about
the hurdles encountered when re-mastering Bellini’s I Puritani,
(the first recorded collaboration between Callas, La Scala and
EMI) Obert-Thorn reveals the opera was recorded not at La Scala
but in a large church where the echo often played havoc with
musical detail. “There are some odd balances with some singers
recorded too closely and some too far away …… Previous CD transfers
attempted to remove session noises at the end of some tracks
by fading down the ends of arias, adding reverberation and then
leaving digital silence before resuming the music – a solution
that seemed to be worse than the problem.” Pitch variations
caused by sections recorded at different times were also present.
Obert-Thorn concludes: “I used the best
portions drawn from 8 LP copies. Most of the electronic clicks
that remained, even on the CD editions, have been removed, and
care has been taken to adjust for the pitch differences between
and within each track.”
[This article was originally written
for Sydney’s Fine Music magazine in early
2005. However all dates and figures have been revised and are
correct as of the time of writing.]