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Time Reviewed

By Nicolas Soames

1 December 2012

What a year 2012 has been!

Publishers, and Naxos AudioBooks is no different, spend most of their time looking at the present and the future:

The Present: There are the new releases for this month: an endearing classic book on British birds and the fourth and final volume in Sapper’s ripping story of the encounters between Bulldog Drummond and his arch-enemy Carl Peterson. A greater contrast there could not be – although they are both rather essentially English.

The Future: The Naxos AudioBooks office is busy putting the finishing touches to the variety of new titles for next year – and a good, fun year it will be with William Makepeace Thackeray cheek by jowl with The Kalevala, The Perfumed Garden, The Kings and Queens of England, and a host of other varied recordings.

But I can be excused for taking a short pause to look back over 2012 because it has been a stupendous year. The backdrop has been the 25th anniversary of Naxos, the classical music label that set out from its non-traditional base in Hong Kong in 1987 and turned the classical record industry on its head. Klaus Heymann’s purpose was simple: to provide reliable and often excellent new digital recordings of classical music at a price below the lowest note of paper money. In the UK, that meant £4.99, and the price was retained for over a decade. It had to go up, of course, but now it can be said that almost every home that has a classical CD has a Naxos CD.

The Story of Naxos

My particular contribution to, and enjoyment of, the 25th anniversary was writing The Story of Naxos, published by Piatkus. The book looked at how and why it happened: how a German businessman and record collector based in Hong Kong turned Naxos into the single most powerful force in classical recording. Its public face is the Naxos label itself, which, with labels it has bought and others with which it has a close association, offers some 10,000 titles; it is also the leading distributor of classical CD labels worldwide. In addition, it is the principal provider of classical music on the web through its websites, and I found it fascinating to write the book (the first real history of a classical music label) and I think all who love classical recordings will find it absorbing. I say this without inelegant self-promotion: the story is the thing!

Naxos AudioBooks is just one part of Naxos, though for me, of course, it has been my focus since it started in 1994. There have been many high points – the unabridged Ulysses, The Complete Sherlock Holmes and Anton Lesser reading Tristram Shandy unabridged – but 2012 has seen two more pinnacles climbed.

The principal literary anniversary has been the marking of the birth of Charles Dickens. There certainly has been a lot of him – biographies, documentaries, films, new editions – and Naxos AudioBooks contributed by completing the considerable task of recording all the major novels in both abridged and unabridged form.

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

It was a huge undertaking. Of course, we have been recording Dickens over the years – starting with Anton Lesser reading Great Expectations (in abridged form) as one of our very first releases. But as 2012 dawned there was still quite a lot to do. But it was with the David Timson recordings, including The Pickwick Papers (released in April), The Mystery of Edwin Drood (May), and Selections from Sketches by Boz (May), that we completed the major novels and reached the remarkable statistics of 330 CDs with a running time of 415 hours!!

Even then, we hadn’t quite finished because Simon Callow – who has become more synonymous with Dickens than any other single actor – recorded a revealing selection of letters by the author.

Side by side with The Dickens Project was another great challenge: the unabridged recording of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. This was taken on, singlehandedly, by Neville Jason and it was a truly remarkable enterprise. The foundation was laid some years ago when Neville abridged the series and created a 36-CD recording of the work. And, if the truth be told, he didn’t think he would ever find himself back in the studio with Proust again on the lectern under the microphone – for the unabridged recording.

Yet, with my judicious use of the stick and the carrot (‘Do you want someone else to do it first?’ ‘You would be the first to do it and provide hours of pleasure for all those Proustians out there!’), Neville went into our North London studio and began. He knew it very well: he is a highly experienced reader of audiobooks with the unabridged War and Peace and many other works behind him, but it was still daunting!

Marcel Proust

Marcel Proust

Recording the seven novels that make up Remembrance of Things Past took him 45 days, spread over a period of months. It was edited down to 120 CDs that run for 150 hours. There were those long Proustian sentences and the numerous characters who had to age and change as the book unfolded. It is, without question, the greatest piece of sustained reading in audiobook history. And, as many people have attested, it is totally captivating – well, for those who love Proust! You have to be patient and sympathise with the sensitive person that Marcel, the narrator, clearly is; it helps to know and love European culture, for the references are wide and many; and you have to be open-minded, because Proust was presenting a society going through the considerable changes of fin-de-siècle France as Europe moved towards the First World War. Like Neville, the listener has to pace him or herself.

Listening to Proust unabridged is (to state the obvious) a totally different experience from listening to unabridged Dickens: David Timson reading The Pickwick Papers is an absolute delight and Anton Lesser reading Little Dorrit is totally absorbing, but you plunge into Proust when read by Neville Jason. I have met people who have taken three months out of their lives to read Proust; life, for them, did not exist outside of Proust. For a taster, why not try Neville’s 7-minute video podcast on the project.

There have also been many recordings this year other than Dickens and Proust! To browse the list, you can go to our page of recent releases. It is fascinating: here is literary enhancement, entertainment, enjoyment – AND CHRISTMAS PRESENTS! Yes, I have no shame in slipping into commercial mode because I think there are few people who would not enjoy the Naxos AudioBooks experience! I have often been told ‘well, sorry, but I like reading’, and I do too. But in the hands of a master reader, a literary masterpiece, or a delightful diversion, can be a very special event!

Nicolas Soames

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