July CD Picks…and why we should raise a glass to Naxos

After looking round the big recording companies’ websites this morning I felt a sense of disappointment; music by living composers was very thin on the ground. Major record labels don’t really seem very interested in contemporary music any more (coming to think of it, were they ever?). I think it is safe to say that their ‘Classical’ releases have a habit of falling into one of the following categories:

  1. Music by (especially well-known) dead composers. I need to be careful here. I’ve nothing against these recordings in themselves, in fact my own CD library and, I suspect, everyone else’s is choc-a-bloc with this kind of music. It’s the concentration upon this that is a worry.
  2. Themed collections of classical music such as EMI’s new release of Romantic Balletsor, worse, collections based upon some kind of new-age nonsense and still listed under classical, such as the new disc, also on EMI, entitled Zen Chants (I’m including hyperlinks not so you can go and buy the discs, but because I want to show that I’m not making this up). 
  3. Music that is made marketable by the presence of a superstar performer. Here things sometimes look brighter, since it can enable a record company or performing artist to get music of lesser-known composers into the public domain. Joanna Macgregor’s disc of Cage and Nancarrow, which I reviewed last month, falls into this category. But often the music tends to focus on the ‘safe’ composers. And, of course, it helps if the performer is attractive. Have a look here to see what I mean.
  4. The music of a lucky few contemporary ‘superstar’ composers. Again I’ve nothing against this. I’m delighted to see Nonesuch trailing a soon-to-be released disc of music by Steve Reich. Totally deserved, good luck to you etc. But this creaming off the top of a few composers, especially those whose music is most easily marketable, ignores the depth and breadth of new music being written today. 

It is easy to see what binds all of these categories together: the need to make money. Whilst this is understandable –  a record company is a business not a charity – I wonder whether record sellers might be missing out on something in the longer term. They pour all their huge marketing resources into a few predictable pots, completely missing out on all of the other talent around. Why not continue their promotion of a few big names but at the same time allocate a proportion to deserving lesser-known composers? Lesser names are cheaper today but they may become the cash cows of tomorrow. 

If a big record company does not believe that this is viable they need to look at the work of labels such as Hyperion and, in particular, Naxos. I confess that when I first started seeing Naxos discs around 20 years ago I tended to ignore them, believing that their prices reflected lower quality recordings. A stupid attitude. Not only do they have, by a substantial margin, more new recordings on offer this (and every) month than the major classical record labels, but a high proportion of these contain music by living composers. Some of these are well-known, some half-forgotten and some quite obscure. It makes the Naxos new release page an exciting place of discovery. What’s more (and here they differ from Hyperion), they release all of their discs on to Spotify –  fast becoming my first port of call for all of my listening – and are even helpful enough to publish sleeve notes and excellent composer biographies on their site at no charge.

So here, at last, are my totally Naxos new music recordings picks this month.

Pride of place goes to their new disc of organ music by Judith Bingham.  I’ve often wondered why so many contemporary composers do not write for this instrument. This magnificent disc shows what they are missing. It contains a good cross-section of her work for the instrument, from the superb, granite-hewn concerto for organ, Jacob’s Ladder, to two delightfully simple works originally intended for children, Gift and Hope. Bingham’s language is often dissonant and chromatic but always very expressive and, actually, extremely approachable. The performers and recording are first-rate. This is a recording I will return to again and again.

If I were to say ‘Howard Blake’ most people would probably think of The Snowman. If, like me, you are unfamiliar with his other work, why not try Naxos’s new disc of string chamber music featuring the Edinburgh Quartet? It includes Spieltrieb, a cogently argued and substantial single movement work for quartet; A Month in the Country, a suite formed from his film score that packs quite an emotional punch (listen for example, to the heart-rending third movement); and Leda and the Swan, the score for a television ballet that, due to its erotic nature, caused a bit of a stir when it was broadcast. This is probably not the disc for those looking for hard-edged contemporary music, but the quality of the writing is undeniable. The only thing I could have done without is the final piece on the disc, a string quartet version of The Snowman. Even Naxos can succumb to commercial pressures.

Finally, something a little bit ‘left-field’.  A disc released as part of their ‘American Classics’ series containing music for saxophone quartet. The composers included are entirely unfamiliar to me though that could, of course, be simple ignorance on my part. The disc contains: Elias Tanenbaum’s Sax Quartet, David Sampson’s Breathing Lessons, Morrill Dexter’s 6 Bagatelles, Eddie Sauter’s Piece for Tuba and Saxophone Quartet  and Eric Ewazen’s Rhapsody for Saxophone Quartet. The style of the works tends to be jazz/minimalist inspired but with moments of real expressive intensity. I was particularly taken, for example, by the sometimes pensive, sometimes bitingly sardonic Piece for Tuba and Saxophone Quartet. The New Hudson Quartet have made promoting and expanding this repertoire their mission. Their performances, with an impressive range of nuance and fine ensemble, are excellent.

Originally posted at Composition:Today ©Red Balloon Technology