The Best of Naxos' classical catalog

Category: Music

Most of the classical music fans among our A-gon membership are familiar by now with the Naxos label, which offers a huge catalog (179 pages) of classical, jazz, and international recordings at budget prices (single CD’s are $6.99). Many of their releases have won multiple awards from various magazines, such as the Penguin Guide, Gramophone, BBC Music, Classics Today, Diapason, Repertoire, Cannes Classical Awards, and Stereoplay. The awards recognize not only quality of performance, but also recording/audio quality.

I was in Borders Music a few days ago, and picked up a copy of Naxos’ 2001 catalog. After perusing it, I was surprised by the large number of recordings that have received multiple awards. The following list reflects some of the best Naxos releases that have received at least 2 awards (most have won 3 or more). At their modest budget price, these recordings present a fine opportunity for classical music neophytes to start building a library of recordings at minimal cost.

(Catalog number follows name of composition)
1. Johann Albrechtsberger (1736-1809): Concerto in B-flat Major (8.553831)
2. Malcolm Arnold (b. 1921): Symphonies #3 & #4 (8.553739)
3. Kurt Atterberg (1887-1974): Suite #3 for violin, viola, and string orchestra (8.553715)
4. Samuel Barber (1910-1981): First Essay for Orchestra (8.559024)
5. Bela Bartok (1881-1945): Hungarian Pictures (8.5543210)
6. Arnold Bax (1883-1953): Symphony #3 (8.553608)
7. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Triple Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Piano (8.554288)
8. Arthur Bliss (1891-1975): Adam Zero (8.553383)
9. Anton Bruckner (1824-1896): Symphony #2 (8.554006); #3 (8.553454); #4 (8.554128); #7 (8.554269)
10. Ernest Chausson (1855-1899): String Quartet, Op. 35 (8.553645)
11. Edward Elgar (1857-1934): Piano Quintet in A Minor (8.553737); Symphony #3 (8.554719)
12. George Enescu (1881-1955): String Quartets #1 and #2 (8.554721)
13. Gerald Finzi (1901-1956): Clarinet Concerto; 5 Bagatelles (8.553566)
14. Cesar Franck (1822-1890): Piano Quintet in F Minor (8.553645)
15. Franz Josef Haydn (1732-1809): Symphony #30 (8.550757); Symphonies #74-76 (8.554109); String Quartets, Op. 64, #1-3 (8.550673)
16. Gustav Holst (1874-1934): Somerset Rhapsody (8.553696)
17. Leos Janacek (1854-1928): Piano Music, Vol. #3 (8.553588)
18. Joseph Martin Kraus (1756-1792): Olympic Overture (8.553734)
19. Franz Liszt (1811-1886): Complete Piano Music, Vol. 1 (8.553852)
20. Darius Milhaud (1892-1974): Piano Music (8.553443)
21. E.J Moeran (1894-1950): String Quartets; String Trio (8.554079)
22. Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880): Gaite Parisienne (8.554005)
23. Walter Piston (1894-1976): Violin Concertos #1 and #2 (8.559003)
24. Sergey Prokofiev (1891-1953): Piano Concertos #1, 3, and 4 (8.550566)
25. Einojuhani Rautavaara (b. 1928): Cantus Arcticus & others (8.554147)
26. Alan Rawsthorne (1905-1971): Symphonic Studies; Cello Concerto (8.554763)
27. Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975): Cello Concertos #1 and #2 (8.550813)
28. Jean Sibelius (1865-1957): Finlandia (8.554265)
29. Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884): Ma Vlast (complete) (8.550931)
30. Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840-1893): Suites #1 and #2 (8.550644)
31. Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958): Symphony #5 (8.550738)
32. Guiseppe Verdi (1813-1901): Requiem (2 CD’s) (8.550944-45)
33. William Walton (1902-1983): Cello Concerto (8.554325); and March for “A History of the English Speaking Peoples” (8.553869)

Good listening to everyone!
I agree 100%. Another big big plus which is probably a benefit of being a budget label, is that I have never if hardly ever heard an over-produced Naxos CD, of the kind I complain about with many Deutche Grammophone, etc. They just about put the raw recording straight on the CD which no (over) manipulation by a bunch of engineers with bad hearing and/or bad taste.

At their prices Naxon cannot afford to spend the money to screw it up like the big label can (and do).

I do not care for the sound of "most" Naxos classical CD's and no longer purchase them (even for $1 each on the used market). I am not really into "audiophile recordings" and these just rub me the wrong way to the point that I do not enjoy them (they sound a bit like bad surround sound to me). My preferred budget label is PMG/PILZ, most of which are digital recordings (also said to be a "no no"), but regardless of this I like the sound as well as the performances and have over 100 of them (each to his/her own). For budget classical LP's I find much of the older MHS (Musical Heritage Society) library to be quite nice. Not in that the the pressing are great, but many of the perfomances are quite "out there". They have CD's as well, but I only own a few.
Interesting comment, Dekay. I have only bought a few of the Naxos releases so far, but I've been very impressed with both the performances and the audio quality. The releases that I listed are ones that have won 3, 4, even 5 different "best of" awards from the magazines mentioned, which is why I thought this might be a good starting place for newer classical listeners.

I agree with your comment about the MHS releases -- I have about 50 of their LP's, acquired 15-20 years ago.

Given the different reactions that Dekay and I have to the Naxos label, I'd be interested in hearing what experiences other have had.
I have bought several of them and appreciate that they offer some slightly obscure things, such as the Bax, some Gerald Finzi (I love Gerald Finzi), and others (I think these things are somehat obscure). Price is great, what have you got to lose? There are several on the list above I will probably order.

But I've never been impressed with the sonics at all, the recordings all sound soft and dull to me.
Hi SD: I doubt that any that I purchased were recent releases (and perhaps they have set the bar higher since then). I have purchased large collections of classical CD's (over the past couple of years) and have probably had well over 100 of the Naxos units. I rarely had the illusion that I was sitting in the audience with them. The sound is hard to describe, but it seemed that they were either over mixed and/or more lekely tried to blend too many microphones (with different tonal characteristics into the blend). I have done some recording in the past (nothing as adventurous as classical music:-) and this is just a guess as to what I was hearing. Like I mentioned earlier - most will pan DDD recordings - and I enjoy the PMG/PILZ discs (almost 100 of these as well), so a lot of this goes to personal taste. Yes, I really enjoy the early MHS LP's (I picked up 100+ of them which were mint/never played in one fell swoop). This started us out with a nice/interesting classical LP library, without breaking the bank. My wife collects books, so I never get any flack when I bring home cases of CD's and or LP's (she understands that they need to be purchased when the price is right and without any hesitation - otherwise you snooze).
I have found Naxos, of which I own 30 or so classical, and have bought and gotten rid of 20 or so as well, to be consistent with other labels in that some recordings are very realistic, while others are totally lacking any semblance of realism for various reasons. The worst Naxos I've heard are recorded with far too much ambience, sounding muffled and distant with no instrumental detail. A few have been a little bright. Sometimes the performance is lifeless or unorthodox. Sometimes, though, just like the big guys, they get it dead on in every respect. If you're interested in the music and searching for a definitive version, odds are better that an established big label will provide something worth living with. If you don't know a piece of music and want to experiment, $5 is not a big gamble in our audiophile world. When you find something you like, note the ensemble, conductor, recording details such as engineer and locale, and buy more of that series. Reward succes and quality, punish incompetence.
As I sort of stated above, I like many Naxos because they are never over produced. I do find some that don't sound good, but same is true will all labels.

I also have a few MHS LPs. They are pretty good. A lot of the MHS CDs are reissue of discontined CDs from major lables that they got permission to issue under their label. I believe they are chosen for the performance quality, not sound quality.

Of the several hundred Naxos discs I own, bought mostly on the basis of reviews, there are really very few clunkers (stay away from their early Rameau stuff) and some are sensational. Their "Naxos Historical" line is also full of gems, especially those remastered/restored by Mark Obert-Thorn. Enjoy. Dave Pogue
Sd, thanks for taking the time to list: a great practical guide!
I usually purchase Naxos to try new artists, & to listen to certain composers/pieces that are hardly found on major labels' catalogues. Admittedly, I had paid lip-service to sound quality -- an interesting aspect! In my system, the sound ranges from reasonably detailed to harsh (digititis maybe). Compared to Decca's re-issues, Decca comes on top -- by far. But the opportunity to audition certain artists before they become giga-stars is still there!
SD, thank you for your good work! I owned around 30 naxos CDs, and it sounds great to me, though some of them a bit bright. but I spend only $4 for a new piece. what a bargain. some of their historical cd are great gem musically. I also MHS lps including Ritcher's bach well-tempered. they sound fine to me too.
happy listening folks

music comes first, not equipments.
Pick your favorites I guess, but the current Decca reissues that are good are the ones under the "Decca Legends" label. Just before these were "The Classic Sound" Decca releases which are just as good IMHO.
I should mention that one of the Naxos recordings - Granados' Twelve Spanish Dances (with Norbert Kraft on guitar) -- is on my short list of recordings I'll take with me to a desert island. A beautiful piece that is both well recorded and wonderfully performed.

I have about a dozen or so Naxos CD's and think that most of them them are first rate. There are a couple that are done poorly enough that I really can't listen to them (Ferde Grofe's Grand Canyon Suite for one), but for the most part I've found them to be a quality label. Generally, unless there's a particular performance of a piece that I'm dying have, I'll check out Naxos first and see what's available from them. For the price, its hardly a risk.