Klaus Heymann: The Last Record Man Standing
It’s hard to believe that less than 25 years ago, a record label named Naxos sprang up seemingly out of nowhere offering quality recordings of most of the standard classical music repertoire for a fraction of typical retail cost. But what might be even harder to believe is that this global operation is basically the creation of one man—Klaus Heymann
It’s hard to believe that less than 25 years ago, a record label named Naxos sprang up seemingly out of nowhere offering quality recordings of most of the standard classical music repertoire for a fraction of typical retail cost. Pretty soon thereafter, the company began venturing further afield from the tried and true warhorses, issuing a great deal of never-before-released music from all over the world. And then, in 1999, the label launched its Naxos American Classics imprint, quickly developing one of the largest catalogs of repertoire from the United States. Throughout, all of Naxos’s releases have remained significantly below the standard price point for CD recordings.
But that’s only the first part of the story. Over the past decade, Naxos has emerged as the leading distributor of other labels that release classical music—independent labels around the globe, as well as the classical titles issued by the so-called major labels. While other record companies seem to be in a downward spiral as a result of things like digital downloads and cloud-based technologies, Naxos is thriving—making the enormous catalog of their own releases and the labels they distribute available in all these new formats and still managing to make a profit—and also continuing to remain dedicated to releasing physical recordings.
It’s hard to believe. But what might be even harder to believe is that this global operation is basically the creation of one man—Klaus Heymann, a German-born businessman who is a resident of Hong Kong and also spends a great deal of time in New Zealand. Heymann, a lifelong fan of classical music who never learned how to read music, got involved in the record business decades ago when he started a mail-order business catering to U.S. military personnel overseas and was distributing audio equipment. He began organizing concerts to promote the equipment and soon found himself on the board of the Hong Kong Philharmonic back when they were still an amateur orchestra. Nearly thirty years ago he founded his first record label, Marco Polo, which was devoted to recording rare repertoire that had never been previously recorded. Within five years with his feet wet from Marco Polo, he decided to tackle an even larger project by creating Naxos as a budget label that could compete on a global scale with the major labels, and he has succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest predictions. Yet despite Heymann’s remarkable success, he is relatively humble. He considers himself lucky to be involved in a business that is basically fun and credits all of his good fortune to the judgments of his wife, the violinist Takako Nishizaki, who has served as an auxiliary set of ears for him for the past four decades.
I have tried to have a sit down chat with Heymann for over a decade, trying to meet him in New York, Hong Kong, and even New Zealand. But while we have spoken on the telephone several times over the years, I never met him in person until the came to New York City for a couple of days in July 2011. As a lifelong recordings enthusiast, having an extensive conversation with someone who has been responsible for so many treasured recordings was a joy; and since Heymann seems to be in the only person in the record business who remains successful and highly optimistic about the future, chatting with him was also extremely refreshing.
Klaus Heymann in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
July 7, 2011—New York, New York
Frank J. Oteri: Thanks to you, people have access to a catalog that is really unprecedented in the history of recorded music. I remember reading an interview someone did with you many years ago in which you stated that you wanted to record everything mentioned in the Grove Dictionary of Music. Is that still a goal?
Klaus Heymann: That’s practically impossible. Years ago somebody asked me if there was any music left to record. I said, if you look at encyclopedias of music and orchestral catalogs and publishers’ catalogs, you come to the conclusion that about 2 million hours of music have been composed since the Middle Ages and about 100,000 have been recorded. So that means that there’s another 1,900,000 hours to record. That’s the answer to the question. It will be impossible to record the entire Grove. But the idea is still to come up with a reasonably comprehensive encyclopedia of classical music that covers all of the most important repertoire, and also a few byways of the repertoire where I’m especially a hobbyist—like violin music, because I’m married to a violinist. I like the contemporaries of Mozart and Haydn, and I invested in publishing their works as well. So there are hobby parts of the catalog, but most of it is really focused on having a fairly comprehensive catalog of classical music.
FJO: Is there any repertoire that you would not record?
KH: No. In fact, we’ve been expanding our national coverage. We’re looking not only at the standard central European classical repertoire, but really what’s happening in the U.K., in Spain, in Japan, in Greece. There’s now a Greek Classics. It’s small because some of the projects that had been promised didn’t come through because of the Greek economic crisis. Japanese Classics has been slowed down a bit by the tsunami and earthquake, but will now become revitalized because we have a deal with Geidai to record major repertoire. People have been bugging me about a Turkish series; we have our first Turkish contemporary composer, Kamran Ince, now on the label. We’re starting a Canadian Classics series now with Raymond [Bisha] as a mentor. So it’s universal. We’re the only truly universal record company, frankly. We’re more universal than Universal.
FJO: And it’s not just classical music, because you have a world music series and you recorded jazz at some point.
KH: Well, those didn’t do so well, partly because we didn’t have anybody in the company championing that kind of music. The jazz was very successful with the critics, but the biggest problem is that Americans don’t buy non-American jazz. We had Golden and Platinum records in Poland, Sweden, Finland, and other places, but nobody in the States wanted to buy the stuff. And without the world’s biggest jazz market, there was no way the thing would prosper. I made a few mistakes as well. For example, I put contemporary art on the covers when marketing wanted pictures of the artists. It was really a stupid thing for me. I thought I knew better, but I didn’t.
World music, I think I overpaid and again we didn’t have a champion in the company pushing it through. So I eventually put those two labels to sleep, but there’s still a substantial catalog out there.
FJO: Obviously, from the American perspective, it’s very exciting that there’s Naxos American Classics and I’m excited about what that particular imprint has done for American repertoire in terms of breadth—not just all the contemporary music but all the historic material from the 19th century that so few people are aware of. Perhaps most exciting is that this music is now available all over the world. I was in a record shop in Zagreb and saw Morton Feldman on American Classics. Ditto in Dublin and in South Korea—these discs are literally everywhere. We have all this music, but in many parts of the world when people think of American music, they think of all the great popular music we’ve done and sometimes this other material can get overlooked.
FJO: I’m curious about a correlative to that. I imagine that American Classics as a whole does really well in the United States and similarly Spanish Classics in Spain and Greek Classics in Greece, before the economic crisis. I’m wondering what the export viability is of these various series. Are people in Spain buying Greek music? Are people in Greece buying the American repertoire?
KH: I think it depends entirely on the repertoire. For the American Classics series, 75% of the sales are in the United States and 25% are international. For Japanese Classics, 90% are in Japan and only 10% are international. With Greek Classics, we sell 90% in Greece, which is a very small market, and 10% elsewhere. But for Spanish Classics, maybe 30% in Spain and 70% international, because Albeniz, Turina, Granados, and De Falla are commercially viable repertoire. It depends whether it’s more part of the mainstream. English repertoire we can sell in all the former colonies. So it does well in the U.K., which is the home territory, but also in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States—all the English-speaking territories. So American music having 75% domestic sales and 25% international sales is pretty good.
FJO: I’m curious about the appeal of national identity in marketing this music. The logo on top always has the flag of the country where the music is from. Is that there for a reason? Is this marketing based on national pride and ethnic pride to some extent? And, if so, what about the huge immigrant populations of Greeks and Japanese abroad?
KH: Do they buy classical music? That’s the question. If somebody is not interested in classical music, they won’t buy an American Classics title because they’re Americans or because the American flag is there. Having the flag there was a basic design idea that I had, and it started with American Classics, since that was the initial thing. We have a big French catalog, but French repertoire is mainstream classical, same with Italian. People said, “Do a Polish Classics label.” And I said, “Look, Chopin is standard core repertoire, so would we put a Polish flag on that? No.” If the national music—Italian, German, Austrian, Polish, Russian—if that is part of the mainstream, we won’t create a national label. There’s a national label only if the music is not part of the mainstream of classical music.
FJO: But you talked about lesser-known composers. When you were talking about Albeniz and Granados being a reason why the Spanish Classics series does so well outside of Spain, I was thinking of Benet Casablancas. That’s a name that a lot of people abroad don’t know and recordings of his music had not been available, at least not in this country.
KH: Casablancas, of course, and Balada.
FJO: But Balada lives in Pittsburgh. And, in fact, his discs on Naxos are not part of the Spanish Classics or American Classics imprints. They say “21st Century Classics” on them.
KH: That’s right.
FJO: I can see how the flag helps in some ways for somebody who might not know some of these names. They might not have an association with the name of, say, Manolis Kalomiris, but put a Greek flag on it, and they might think, “Hmm, I wonder what Greek classical music sounds like.”
KH: Yes, it helps. You put a label on it so people know that this is what it is. It’s always important that if you launch something obscure, you tell people on the cover or at least on the inlay card what it’s all about. The flag, as you say, helps identify the repertoire and maybe rouses people’s curiosity. But in Spain we had big issues with things like, “Is Catalan music Spanish music?” Most of the big Spanish composers come from Catalunya, so there was a really big discussion: Should we put the Catalan flag on there or the Spanish flag? Most people don’t know where Catalunya is, but they know where Spain is. Then we have Basque music. We even have a Basque opera that was done on [my earlier label] Marco Polo, but now it will eventually come to Spanish Classics. There were big discussions about whether we risked an outcry from the Basque Country for having a Spanish flag on Basque composers’ music. In some of these countries where there are these ethnic or cultural tensions within different groups of the nation, is the flag a good thing or not?
FJO: I was at MIDEM in January and visited the booth of the Catalan music export office, which is a separate entity from the Spanish music export office. I thought that such a thing would be unthinkable in the United States, and then I chanced upon a Texas music export booth.
KH: You have all these different states’ interests. I think there might actually be a greater cultural difference between Texas and New York State than there is between Catalonia and the rest of Spain.
FJO: Even though there is less of a linguistic difference, but maybe even that’s not completely true.
KH: I would say that there’s a linguistic difference between Texas and New York as well.
FJO: So getting back to what you would release and what you wouldn’t release on Naxos. You already mentioned that the jazz and world music series are currently on hiatus. It’s a decade later, so this might not still be true, but in an interview you gave ten years ago you mentioned that your son was interested in punk rock and not really interested in classical music.
KH: That’s still not on the menu, but he progressed to indie rock.
FJO: So might there ever be a Naxos indie rock imprint?
KH: No, simply because our distribution network knows how to sell classical music; they don’t know how to sell rock. This is another reason that, at the time, our jazz and world music did not do so well. In the meantime, we’ve learned how to sell jazz because we’ve taken on this American Jazz Icons DVD series. I’m actually thinking about re-launching the jazz series since we now know how to sell it. World music has a different outlet system: souvenir shops and shops at famous sites. It’s very often for tourists. We don’t quite know how to do that. In some countries we can, but in others we cannot. I know absolutely nothing about world music; I only know about Chinese music.
FJO: Now that we’re in the second decade of the 21st century, composers who have come out of classical music are grabbing ideas from everywhere. There’s a lot of so-called contemporary classical music that sounds like indie rock. The boundary between jazz and concert music is now so blurry and so are the boundaries with world music. You mentioned Chinese music. There are all these fantastic Chinese composers not only in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, but here in the United States who are creating new music for Chinese instruments, sometimes completely on their own, sometimes in combination with Western instruments. So is this still classical music, or is it world music?
KH: If you go to our website, we have Chinese music as a separate category of classical music and we also have Chinese music as part of world music. If it has ethnic instruments or is traditional, it goes under world music from China. If it’s Western-type classical music by Chinese composers, it goes under Chinese music. But we also have issues with those composers. Bright Sheng wanted to be on American Classics. Huang Ruo also wanted to be on American Classics; he didn’t want to be labeled as a Chinese composer. We’re actually about to launch a series devoted to contemporary Chinese composers, since so many have become well known. Tan Dun is of course the biggest name, but there’s also Bright Sheng, Huang Ruo, Chen Yi and her husband—
FJO: —who just won the Pulitzer.
KH: Chen Qigang in France. Then there are folks from the middle generation like Qu Xiao-song and Ye Xiaogang whom I’ve known for many years. So there is a proposal on the table to record all the leading composers of the younger generation, as well as the middle and then the older generation—Ding Shan-de, for example, the composer of the Long March Symphony. His grandson distributes our Naxos digital library in China and another grandson is a conductor. There’s a whole generation of composers whose music has not been available outside of China of which we already have quite a lot recorded.
FJO: This raises an interesting issue. You said that Bright Sheng and Huang Ruo prefer to be on American Classics. They live in the United States, so they are in fact American composers. Kamran Ince spends half of his time in the United States, and he was actually born in Montana. The 21st-century composer is a transnational composer. And even earlier. The works that Arnold Schoenberg composed after 1934—the Piano Concerto, the Violin Concerto, the 4th String Quartet—were all written here in the United States, so they are in fact American classics.
KH: That is a constant issue with databases. For Korngold, is he German or is he American? Or Kurt Weill? So we had to set up some very strict rules with the database. The works written after they left their home country are now from their country of residence. We haven’t applied that strictly so far with the Chinese composers, but it will eventually happen with them as well. The things that they wrote in China before they left for the United States or any other country—that will be Chinese classics. Things that they wrote after they became professor of music at some American university or a French university will go to the country of residence.
FJO: Obviously the labels help with marketing and with positioning the discs. You mentioned world music in tourist shops. I can see any Greek tourist shop being willing to sell Greek Classics. Similarly, you should be able to go to the gift shop at the Statue of Liberty and buy Naxos American Classics. I don’t know if you can.
KH: I will talk to my marketing people in Nashville about this next week and find out. Maybe a limited selection, like the Grand Canyon Suite. The Niagara Falls Suite should be sold at Niagara Falls. Ferde Grofe has all this descriptive music, even a piece about Appalachia. Maybe we should sell that in Appalachia, although it probably won’t do very well there.
FJO: That raises the whole issue about where the market is. They released a report this morning saying that over the last six months recording sales have gone up for the first time in seven years.
I was prepared to come talk to you today about how you are able to thrive despite the whole industry collapsing. I’m not on the bandwagon that wants to do away with physical recordings; I’m actually quite devoted to them. But there seems to be a mindset among people my age and certainly people younger than me that physical possessions are an encumbrance and no one wants to have anything. So how do you survive in such a climate?
Since we have a huge catalog, anyone who wants to offer classical music has to have Naxos because we cover such a wide range of repertoire that no one else has. And if it’s not Naxos, it’s Marco Polo. Nobody has the complete Johann Strauss except us. Nobody has the complete Josef Strauss except us, British repertoire, which nobody else has, and then American Classics. So I’m very optimistic about the future of our industry. As you can see, Warner has just changed hands for 3.5 billion; EMI will probably get acquired again. In digital services almost every day there is a start-up that has raised substantial funding. What the future will look like we don’t know. All we know is that we will be there, because we have placed bets on all that’s possible—on subscriptions, on downloads, books with embedded music, we’ve developed very nice classical music apps for children on instruments of the orchestra. So we’ll be there. And still we will have a decent income from selling physical products—if not our own, then other people’s. In the States, we have Chandos and CPO. In Australia we have a quasi-monopoly and in England we have almost a monopoly—we have Hyperion, Chandos, CPO, BIS. Basically every independent record label today has to use our distribution network. So if our own CDs don’t sell, we sell other people’s CDs and make money from them.
FJO: In another interview from about a decade ago you talked about the prohibitive costs of making a recording with an American orchestra. At that time, a single recording made by an American orchestra costs approximately $100,000. Now it’s probably even more than that.
KH: If you do it under studio conditions.
FJO: There’s an interesting economics lesson here, because you also said that you basically only recoup one dollar on every disc that is sold, which would mean that you would have to sell 100,000 CDs of that specific title just to break even. This is unthinkable when something can get on the Billboard chart for classical music that has only sold 500 copies. So I’m looking at those numbers and thinking nowadays a dollar is all that people pay for a download on iTunes and you can probably only recoup ten cents out of that. If we’re moving into this world with Pandora and Spotify, you’re only getting pennies on things. You would have to have millions of people access a particular recording in order for it to be viable economically to have recorded it. I know that most of the orchestra recordings you make happen because of private donors etc., the economics of this music otherwise could not work in the marketplace.
FJO: I’d like to talk with you in greater detail about distribution. When I first started realizing that Naxos had gotten involved with distributing other labels, it seemed like a disconnect for me. You have discs at a price point that was very affordable—you basically outpriced every other label in the market doing equivalent recordings and in some cases recordings that no one else was doing. So in a way it seems counterintuitive if you have, say, a recording of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, for another record label to come and ask to have you distribute their recording of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony. But then when I read your biography, I discovered that before you embarked on starting record labels, you were in the distribution business; the record label was an outgrowth of that. So, in a way, distribution has always been key to what you do as a businessman.
But then I realized selling only your own label is not viable because there’s not enough to sell to maintain a sales force, to run a warehouse, and so on. So we started offering our service to other labels. In the beginning it was an issue. That’s why some companies are not called Naxos. In the U.K. where it started, we called the company Select Music, because [some labels] didn’t want to be distributed by a Naxos company. Of course, nowadays it’s a little bit different and so we’re actually discussing changing the names of all the non-Naxos [named] companies into Naxos U.S., Naxos Australia (from Select Music), and so on. Now people have to be distributed by us if they want to be in the market. Although I made money from distributing hi-fi equipment in China and Hong Kong—I had distribution companies in Singapore, Thailand, all over Asia—that was never my big thing. I was always more interested in the music. But I was forced into it.
And there have been many fringe benefits from that because having these national companies also helps to sell the digital services. Every national company has a subscription sales person who sells the Naxos Music Library and the Naxos Video Library. We have licensing people in every market who sell licenses to whoever needs classical music. We have a very successful licensing company in Korea. Every Korean GPS system in cars has Naxos music on it. If you buy a Lexus in Japan, it also has Naxos music on its GPS.
So the whole thing was a necessity. Then distributing other labels became a necessity to have a more healthy economic foundation for the distribution company. And then they started selling our other services. It grew organically.
FJO: You mentioned Warner Classics before; you’re now distributing them. That’s major label product, which is pretty shocking!
KH: I found that surprising, too. But Warner Classics is very happy with what we’re doing in the States and in Canada. We just started Sony in outlets they had not been servicing, and other people are knocking on the door because they have come to realize that distributing classical music via a pop and rock oriented organization is not the world’s best way of selling classical music. Nowadays sales have dropped—it has become a ones and twos and threes business in many ways—and we know how to sell ones and twos and threes; their rock and pop companies don’t. You’ll see surprising developments before too long.
FJO: Every time I go to another country, I go to record shops. And since I’ve been at the American Music Center, I feel charged to see what American composers’ music is available wherever I go. This past year I was delighted to see a Naxos American Classics Morton Feldman title in Zagreb and Charles Wuorinen in Dublin. But years ago I remembered going into shops and seeing a Naxos section; it was like the Goya section for canned beans in supermarkets here. As a result everybody probably buys more canned beans from Goya than from anybody else. So with Naxos’s own titles, there’s this separate section in a record shop, a huge catalog that’s all in one place and has a better price. Any other record label that competes with this kind of presence is going to lose. So it’s strange that they’d want to be distributed by you.
KH: I don’t really see it that way. Look, there’s very often repertoire duplication, and I’m very careful. Chandos, for example, is often mining the same unknown territory that we are mining. I always make sure that their release comes out first. They’re always a little bit nervous about showing me their release plans, so I always have to show them my release plans: Take a look—Oh, you have some Casella symphonies? O.K., you come out with it first, and I’ll come out a month later. But they’re happy with what we do for them. Hyperion is quite a separate label; it has a very special image. Naïve is very French—there’s no conflict with us; cpo does its own thing—very unique repertoire. Every once in a while we hit on the same composer. So I send them an email message: Do you plan to do more Rode or is it a one-off? If it’s a one-off, we’ll continue with our project. With Chandos now, [they’re recording] Weinberg—so we share it. They’re doing certain symphonies. I’ll ask which ones they want to do and we’ll do all the others. They don’t have the resources that we do in Russia and in Poland, so we do the Polish Weinberg material with the Warsaw Philharmonic, and the Russian ones we do in St. Petersburg. They do the stuff that doesn’t have language and doesn’t need a choir. It’s very cooperative. There’s a give and take. But if there’s a chance of any conflict, we say you go first. Whether we sell a thousand or two thousand of a title, overall it doesn’t really matter.
FJO: One month doesn’t seem to be a long enough period of time.
KH: Well, then, two months or three months. The main thing is that they go first. The other issue now is with the DVD labels. If people come out with three Don Giovannis the same month, we say, “Look guys, are you sure you want to release them all in the same month?” Some say, “Never mind. Ours is better anyway.” Then fine. But some will say, “Look, maybe we’ll delay ours by three months so it’s not overshadowed, so let them go first.” So it’s very important that we have to be completely impartial. You will see on the Naxos Music Library, the new releases rotate; there’s no advantage for Naxos. Whatever we do, we have to be very even-handed. And we cannot pass on sales information from one to the other. If someone [from one of the labels] says, “How did that Don Giovanni sell in Japan?” I’ll say, “Sorry, go and ask your competitor yourself; I can’t tell you.” But more and more people want to come under our roof because as the market shrinks there are fewer outlets and they love to buy from one source. Sony came to us for the fulfillment for Archive music, because they like to get that from our very efficient center in Nashville. So there’s a benefit to the market for getting as much product as possible from one source.
FJO: It’s interesting how all these labels have become a family. You mentioned Chandos and Naxos dividing up Weinberg’s orchestral music; cpo is in the process of recording all of his string quartets. Sometimes you have even taken a larger role with a label; Ondine has a very special relationship to you.
KH: We own it.
FJO: Is that the only other label that you own at this point?
KH: Well, people think it’s raining, and we offer a roof. So it doesn’t rain on them. There will be more acquisitions, not because we’re acquisitive but because people come to us and say, “Look, we don’t know how to manage anymore, and you have this efficient system. I’m really only interested in producing. So if you keep me on, here’s the label.” We have to pay for it. Capriccio is another one. So, Capriccio, Ondine, and we bought quite a lot of Swedish labels: Swedish Society, Proprius, and so on. More people will come to us simply because they don’t know how to manage in this new economy.
FJO: But all of those labels stay as separate imprints.
FJO: You’ve mentioned Marco Polo throughout this conversation. Marco Polo started before Naxos as a label set up specifically to record rare repertoire that no one had ever recorded. In fact next year will be it’s 30th anniversary, as well as the 25th anniversary of Naxos.
KH: That’s right.
FJO: But Marco Polo has been folded into Naxos. The titles are being reissued on Naxos. So it’s not really functioning as a separate imprint anymore.
KH: The main reason is that many of the things we had basically planned for Marco Polo have become mainstream, like what Chandos is recording now. Marco Polo was the first-ever rarity label that had only world premiere recordings. Now everywhere else, they don’t know how to make money from standard classics anymore, so they all mine the same huge catalog of unknown great and not-so-great composers. So many things we had planned for Marco Polo are now coming out on Naxos, like Casella, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Malipiero; Malipiero came out on Marco Polo first, but now Malipiero would be a Naxos composer.
FJO: The symphony cycle is tremendous.
KH: Yes, and we just finished recording the last two of his orchestral works so now we have Malipiero complete.
FJO: At the beginning of this conversation we talked about the incredible volume of music that exists in the world, and later you were talking about the possibility of three different DVD recordings of Don Giovanni coming out in the same month. We’ve reached such a saturation point. A few years ago I was delighted to write the booklet notes for the first ever complete recording of the Quincy Porter string quartets, but a month later I saw that another quartet had begun recording a complete cycle of them as well. So now not only has the standard repertoire been recorded a hundred times over, but lesser-known repertoire is getting multiple recordings. Might there be too many recordings out there?
KH: I’m the wrong person to ask that. I’m the most delinquent of all; we still put out 25 to 30 new releases a month. Yes, there’s too much repertoire chasing the same very limited circle of specialist collectors. There’s pretty much a consensus in the industry that there’s maybe a million [classical music] collectors in the world when you define a collector as someone who buys at least 10 CDs a year. That means 10 million [classical] CDs are sold every year.
FJO: That’s all? I can’t comprehend someone only buying 10 CDs a year. Sometimes I buy more than 10 CDs in one day.
FJO: It was interesting to read you saying that there’s some repertoire that you recorded twenty years ago that you’re now recording again. Initially you did not duplicate any repertoire on Naxos. But Naxos is now on its second Szymanowski cycle.
KH: The question is always, “Does what we did twenty years ago stand up to today’s demand? Is it the same standard?” The first Szymanowski cycle was with the Silesian Philharmonic in Katowice, and the new one is with the nation’s best orchestra, the Warsaw Philharmonic. So there’s a different dimension in sound quality and playing; these will now be the new gold standard for Szymanowski. Never mind what other people think; our Szymanowski is now the cycle. But the old one was not bad because they knew the music and they knew what they were doing even if the orchestra is not the top standard we have today. We re-record what we think is no longer on the same level as what we do today. I will not re-record my wife’s Mozart violin concertos; I think they have stood the test of time. I think nobody plays Mozart better than she does, and not only because I’m her husband. I’ve seen spontaneous letters coming in saying, “This is the most wonderful Mozart I have ever heard.” So I will not do those again. But I may do the Beethoven piano concertos again, because I’m not entirely happy with the ones we have. There’s a list. The catalog has been marked “Due for Re-recording.” And we also have to make a few artists happy, so they get some juicy repertoire. But by and large if I’m happy with what we have in the catalog it will stay; it will not be re-recorded.
FJO: From a composer’s point of view, as well as from the point of view of an interpreter, having multiple recordings of repertoire is a healthy thing; it’s how repertoire becomes repertoire. I find it so exciting now that Carter is over a hundred years old that there are multiple recordings of most of his pieces. I have all the recordings of his music, but if a new one comes out I’ll get it and listen to it because I want to hear a different take on it. I want to hear different interpretations of many pieces of new music.
KH: There are not many people like you, though, who will buy multiple copies of rare repertoire. They may still buy another hyped Beethoven cycle, although there are not many in production anymore. Every conductor now wants to do a Maher cycle, whether they are good at Mahler or not; it’s a big thing. There are probably 15 Mahler cycles in the pipeline from different orchestras. So if you come to me now and want to do a Mahler cycle, I’ll say, “Do it on your own label.” They might be very good, but there’s just not a market for 15 new Mahler cycles. Who’s going to buy them? The second Szymanowski cycle, there’s probably a market for it. People might have bought the first one 20 years ago and will buy the new one. The new one will come out on BluRay audio with Surround Sound.
FJO: I was pretty amazed to read that you personally proofread the metadata on every release that comes out on Naxos. Metadata on downloads from many labels is notoriously bad, especially for classical music since half the information is frequently missing. But this begs the question: how involved are you with every release that comes out on Naxos? Do you listen to every single title that comes out? You can’t possibly listen to every title that you distribute.
KH: I don’t listen to every single title that we distribute. No way. However, I see what’s coming up on the Music Library every day and sometimes I click and listen to that. I don’t listen to all our own recordings anymore. It’s just impossible; I don’t have the time.
There’s often a very long delay—[there are] people who recorded two years ago and now it’s just coming out. I’ve now started a new program where we actually write to artists whose titles are coming up, especially all the delayed ones, saying “You’ll be happy to learn that this is finally coming out and I really enjoyed the recording, your playing” and so on. I do that with artists we have a regular relationship with, not necessarily one-offs, and that has been really appreciated. I had heard in the past accusations of, “If you record for Naxos it’s in a black hole. It disappears and then all of a sudden it’s released. It’s sold and, yes, it’s in all the stores, but I never hear from these guys again.” I was really stunned by that criticism, and so I’ve now made sure that with every regular house artist that has a new release, I will listen and I will send a complimentary note. I wish I could listen to everything, but I just don’t have the time. I listen to my pet projects—all these 19th-century virtuoso violin composers, I know the repertoire from my wife—and I listen to all the Artaria titles (Mozart’s contemporaries) that have come out, other hobbies like these 19th and 20th century Italian composers: Casella, Martucci, Ferrara. This has been in the back of my head for a number of years and I want to hear what this stuff sounds like. So if it’s things I’m curious about and things by house artists, I’ll still listen to everything. Maybe not the complete CD, but maybe a first movement and a second movement or a last movement or something like that.
FJO: All this involvement in music from someone who doesn’t compose or perform music.
KH: And doesn’t read music.
FJO: Where did this passion come from?
KH: I went to my first concert at age nine. My mother took me. It was two months after the war ended. We were in a little spa in Bavaria and the Munich Philharmonic came to play. It was their first concert right after the war, and my mother—God bless her—took me there. I was just bitten. I never in my whole life listened to anything else. I went back to Frankfurt and I went to all the youth concerts with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony. I went to everything! Then I started collecting records, rare repertoire. [Later on] I became the founding father of the Hong Kong Philharmonic and I started orchestral catalogs. I can talk to any conductor and say, “I know more about repertoire than you do.” And they will all say, “Klaus, I’m sure you do.” I’m a walking encyclopedia. And it’s a hobby. If I have some down time, I still read MGG. Do you know what MGG is? It’s Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart—a German, much more thorough equivalent of Grove. And I’ll flip through it and read a composer entry. Or if someone proposes something, I’ll get out my MGG. People want me to record Meyerbeer. Why has this guy’s music basically been forgotten? And I’m an avid reader of biographies. I always study before I say yes.
FJO: But you were nine years old when you discovered this stuff and you’ve basically devoted your life to it. Anyone who cares about music is indebted to you for what you’ve done—composers, interpreters, and listeners: everybody. But you never had a desire to learn to read music, to compose or perform it?
KH: As a boy I had the desire to learn to play an instrument. My old grandmother had a piano but she wouldn’t let me touch it. “Don’t touch the piano; you’ll break it!” In our family there was no tradition of people learning an instrument. My parents both liked classical music, so we only listened to classical music at home. But after the war we didn’t have the money. We were worried about eating and having shoes and clothes. By 1956, I was twenty years old and it was too late to learn an instrument.
My wife tried to teach me the violin. She gave up after the first lesson and said, “You’re hopeless.” But she taught me how to sing in tune, and she taught me a lot about how to listen to music, about dynamics and flexibility and expression. Half the success of the label is due to her. She listens to all the new artists and decides who gets recorded; it’s not me. I tell her to sit down and listen and sometimes after a few bars she’ll say, “No. Forget it. No way.” Or sometimes, “This is very good,” or “This is fantastic! You should record that artist.” She makes those decisions. Repertoire I decide. But who records—all the new orchestras who come to us with their live performances—she’s very important in that respect.
FJO: So this brings us back to the very beginning of our discussion. You don’t read music and you make the decisions about the repertoire that gets recorded. A lot of the repertoire that you have recorded both on Marco Polo and Naxos had never been recorded before. You might have read an entry about that composer in MGG or Grove, or a biography, which alerts you to the fact that such a piece exists. But how do you know that you’ve come across a piece that you should record if you couldn’t have ever heard it and you can’t read the score?
KH: First, I read up whatever information is available, whether Grove, MGG, Wikipedia. That’s the first step. That already gives you a pretty good idea of what it might be. Then, if possible, I ask people to send me a listening tape if there’s a live performance somewhere, and there is a lot of stuff out there that you can find. But other than that I trust the people that make the proposals. When JoAnn Falletta suggested doing Tyberg, I said, “JoAnn, you have to know that your name is on the record and the orchestra’s name and you make sure the music is good.” And it was a revelation.