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MusicWeb Reviewer’s Log: February 2007
Reviewer: Patrick C Waller

Welcome to this "new improved" weblog - all the links are now embedded within it. Have you ever seen the advert on MusicWeb for the Naxos Music Library and wondered? I don’t pay much attention to internet adverts but maybe they do work because, eventually, one miserable January Sunday morning I decided to investigate. From there it was one small step to take a 15 minute free trial and another to be a signed up member. What follows are some initial reflections on the pros and cons of this facility. Listening to music this way was not new to me because of the Pristine Classical website, which I have mentioned before as an excellent source of mostly historical recordings (but see item below). In case anyone reading is unfamiliar with it, the facility here is to stream music directly off the internet as and when you want it. Pristine also offers downloads from which you can burn CDs but this is not possible from the Naxos Music Library. The nuts and bolts required for acceptable sound are a reasonable specification computer - either a laptop or desktop located within reach of an audio system, broadband internet access, a lead from computer to stereo system amplifier, and a credit card to continue after the first 15 minutes. If you have all those you can be listening within a very short period and no technical expertise is necessary.

The first thing to say is that the amount of music accessible in the library is phenomenal – 11,500 CDs worth at the moment and growing. The next point is that, in general, the basic sound quality is good. The next thing you probably want to know is – how much? The answer to that is $15 per month - about the cost of 1.5 Naxos discs in the UK at the moment. Curiously you can pay 15 Euros if you wish but the real cost of that would be about 30% more at the time of writing. So, at face value it looks like a good deal – and it is. I will come to the downsides a little later - of course there are some - but, to my surprise, and a big plus, quite a fair proportion of the material is from other labels. Apart from the whole Naxos stable there seems to be most, if not all, of BIS - some wonderful stuff there including Suzuki’s Bach Cantata series - and a smattering of titles from labels like Chandos and Hänssler Classics. For the Naxos labels, written documentation is there to open up in a pop-up window - generally it doesn’t seem to be available for the others. Also, recordings are accessible here regardless of the current availability of the CD. For example, other than second-hand, I don’t think you can currently purchase Havergal Brian’s Second Symphony on Marco Polo - presumably it will be reissued on Naxos at some point in the future - but you can listen to it online. There is also much Jazz and the Historical and Nostalgia labels are there but are not available to US customers because of legal problems with copyright.

The Brian recording mentioned above is an example of one of the problems with the system – the sound is not seamless between tracks when the music is meant to be continuous – there is a short gap through which it appears to "jump". This is particularly problematic with opera, the only one of which I have so far listened to is Langgaard’s Antikrist (Da Capo 6.220523-4). In a work like that it is also difficult to keep track of where you are - there is no libretto. Slightly longer gaps may appear if you try to listen to the highest quality sound and/or if your broadband supplier can’t meet the speed demand (128 Kbps for "CD quality" and 64 Kbps for "near-CD quality") – they may not be able to do so at times of peak demand or if you are located a long way from the telephone exchange. For the first month I signed up for CD quality ($25 per month) but it is definitely not worth the extra money since the sound is only very marginally better and the risk of the music pausing for a few seconds here and there - often near the beginning of works - seems to be very much greater at CD quality. However, payment is made on a month-by-month basis and can be stopped at any time, and it is seemingly a simple matter to change to near-CD quality in future.

Another potential drawback is the need to remember to log out each time – forget this at your peril: next time you log in you won’t be able to do anything, presumably because the system will regard this as "multiple simultaneous use" which is not allowed. An e-mail to customer service is then the only way out – they took about 6 hours to remedy it - could have been worse! - when I did this about half an hour into my subscription, which was, I hope, a useful lesson.

At the moment there is quite a good search facility but the site is not great for browsing which is what people often want to do in a "library". The big advantage of this approach to listening to music is to be able to explore unusual repertoire without committing cash and shelf space. For example, I have listened to the first and fifth symphonies of Braga Santos (I don’t think I had heard a note of him before) and second and third symphonies of Ivanovs (the third is particularly wonderful) – the latter another example of more material that you can’t easily buy at the moment. Listening to the Antikrist has convinced me to put it on my DVD wish list - this is cheaper than the CDs! I suspect that I will still want to sneak a few Naxos CDs into the house but at least now I will know exactly what I am getting. Hold onto your hats though, this is still fairly early days – the problems are bound to get ironed out and, without doubt, I feel this kind of facility will replace large CD collections in the future - and thank god for that MusicWeb spouses and partners will say.

I shall conclude on the Naxos Music Library with a few examples of where it is has been really useful. First, for browsing interesting looking new releases such as Rebecca Clarke’s wonderful music for the viola – I heard this well before seeing the review. Conversely, when I read with interest Rob Barnett’s review of Langgaard’s symphonies Nos. 12-14, within about a minute I was able to listen to the music. Then MusicWeb held a get-together in Coventry; Rob mentioned the music of the Swedish composer Atterberg and was recommending his third symphony. Again I was able to sample this very easily – in fact the two symphonies he mentioned, the 3rd and 6th happened to be the only ones in the library. Best of all though, when I dropped Rob an e-mail about Atterberg he mentioned his compatriot Gösta Nystroem (1890-1966), a name completely unfamiliar to me. Amongst other things, I found four of the six symphonies in the library and have since been bowled over by his personal soundworld. Without such a facility I might well never have heard any of the music mentioned in this paragraph but here was able to do so immediately. So the real message is that this is a very good place to hear unfamiliar but worthwhile music.

Coming back to the Pristine Classical site, they have been branching out recently in various ways. Of most interest to me were the recordings of the music of James Stevens (born 1923) – a British composer who studied with Frankel and is best known for his film music. Two of his works are available here in splendid modern sound – his brief (47 minutes) Japanese-inspired opera The Reluctant Masquerade and even briefer (9 minute) mini piano concerto - Concertetto Concitato. These can be downloaded for 6 and 3 Euros respectively - or ordered on custom CDs - and both are well-worth hearing. If you need convincing, excerpts are there to be sampled for free. There is good documentation on the site, an interview with the composer and a link to more information about his music – on MusicWeb of course.

OK back to the real world of silver discs. I’ll start by mentioning a couple of DVDs I have reviewed – Bernstein conducting A Faust Symphony by Liszt, a Recording of the Month in January and the best orchestral DVD I have yet heard - the performance dates from 1976. Less inspiring was the World Philharmonic Orchestra’s inaugural concert of a decade later. Giulini conducting Bruckner was by definition an event but the sound is disappointing and there are better versions of the eighth symphony on DVD. Whilst on the subject of Bruckner – there have been some interesting comments on the Bulletin Board – thanks to Ford and his "little" Bruckner collection.

In terms of CDs, the disc which has impressed me most this month has been the Tovey Cello Concerto on Toccata Classics - also recognised as a Recording of the Month. There is very fine playing from Alice Neary – just how can this work have been so neglected when it surely should stand alongside Elgar’s concerto? Not on the same level but still something of a discovery was the second symphony of Villa-Lobospart of a nearly complete series on CPO. I have now also finished listening to the complete Vernon Handley cycle of Arnold symphonies and was most impressed with this set.

Quite by chance, I heard almost all of Pierre Boulez’s recording of Mahler’s Second Symphony on the radio recently. I was in the car and turned on very near the beginning and had no knowledge of who was playing it until I got home and was able to check on the internet. By that time the long last movement had begun but I was able to listen to most of it through decent equipment. What was immediately recognisable was that this was not a "run-of the-mill" version and perhaps I should have guessed what it was having seen several reviews of this version a while back. On MusicWeb Anne Ozorio was most enthusiastic but, I have to say, my immediate reaction was much less favourable. In terms of interpretation, I thought there was serious grandeur deficiency – great moments just come and go. I also suspected the recording left a lot to be desired with odd balances abounding. But despite all that, it was still impossible not to be gripped by the music.

Moving to the keyboard and worth a mention is the disc of miniatures by Joseph Corsen which Zane Turner reviewed in October – the first ever recording of this Antillean composer. This is a logical place to go next if you have heard and like the music of Brazilian composer Nazareth. At the other end of the size spectrum comes Sorabji and his legendary works for piano. There is phenomenal pianism on offer from Michael Habermann and the only disappointment is the rather below par (recorded live) sound quality. Two keyboard discs I have reviewed were the twelfth volume in Naxos’s series of Soler sonatas on the harpsichord and Angela Hewitt’s Rameau on the piano; the latter did not quite live up to expectations.

Finally, a couple of items about MusicWeb. Even if you didn’t participate in our Challenge to name the most prolific composer of all time you might still be interested to read the winning answers. Secondly, regular readers will hopefully have noticed the new design - on opposite sides of the globe Len Mullenger and David Barker have been burning the midnight oil to make this happen. To me the site looks better than ever and is easier to navigate around. If you feel differently, then please let us know.

Patrick C Waller



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