For many, Naxos Records is synonymous with classical CDs. Klaus Heymann's Hong Kong-based company launched with 100 titles in 1987 and now, sitting in his Remuera apartment, he tells me 3000 are available, although "it's sometimes a headache to keep them all in stock".
These days, much of his energy goes into the music library and streaming radio that Naxos offers on the internet. Visit naxos.com and, for US$150 ($210) a year, you can have access to a veritable wonderland of classical music. Heymann says 99.9 per cent of the repertoire is there, on Naxos recordings and on labels such as BIS and Hanssler. New Zealand's Rattle, Trust and Atoll labels will soon be alongside them.
Ten years ago, some people were more than a little sniffy about the Naxos phenomenon and feathers were ruffled when the NZSO signed up with the label. "Now the orchestra's Hummel Mass is No 5 on our best-selling list, selling 200 or 300 a month," Heymann points out. The NZSO's Lilburn Symphonies have clocked up an impressive 10,000 in sales around the globe.
These days, Naxos is picking up awards, with two mentions in the New York Times last year for adventurous recordings of William Bolcom and Peter Maxwell Davies.
The British Gramophone and Penguin Guide magazines regularly hand out praise.
Only one country, Germany, remains obdurate. "It is still a holdout," laughs Heymann. "No critic is willing to go on record saying how wonderful Naxos is and we've never made the best-of-the-year lists. I don't know why. Maybe these people are weighed down by tradition, although they're probably just not listening objectively."
Heymann's modus operandi of searching out smaller orchestras around the world has paid off, not only with the NZSO but also the Nashville Symphony Orchestra (a splendid Ives Second Symphony under Kenneth Schermerhorn, using the new revised edition of the score) and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (a superb Barber series with conductor Marin Alsop).
Both are part of the label's pioneering American Classics series that Heymann confesses started as a marketing strategy. "We were trying to get into a market where we had no critical recognition - there had never been an American label doing American music with a worldwide distribution.
"Instead of Copland and Barber, we started with the obscure - George Templeton Strong. I discovered a lot of nice music and now it's all the thing."
Marin Alsop is one of Naxos' star discoveries and Heymann is impressed by a frenetic international schedule. "One email is headed up 'Marin in Hilversham', the next day I get one from 'Marin back in Denver', and then a few days later she's in Berlin. She's very cool, a wonderful musician - I think she will get a major American orchestra before too long."
Due out soon is the first instalment of Alsop's Brahms cycle with the London Philharmonic, which Heymann feels will be "one of the top five or 10 versions".
New Zealand's association with this gently spoken German dates to 1994 when he was considering moving his business base to this country. The NZSO has recorded everything from Massenet to Hindemith for Naxos, and a new Lilburn disc is in post-production ("a collection of rarities with one piece that has never been recorded before").
This week, Heymann is in Wellington, sitting in on the recording sessions when the orchestra puts down some piano concertos by Ferdinand Ries, using Alan Badley's new edition of the works for Wellington-based Arataria Publications.
I remind him of the attractive collection of Chinese violin music recorded by his wife, Takako Nishizaki, and it turns out this is her seventh recording of the Butterfly Lover's Concerto.
"We wanted to do an international one with an orchestra and conductor who had never played the work before," explains Heymann, "and what better place to do this than New Zealand? The Chinese orchestras have played this piece for the past 50 years one way and that's it. Even the Hong Kong critics say this version is quite different and the best."
Some New Zealand associations and memories are not quite as sweet. He is philosophic about the ultimate failure of his much-missed International Chamber Music Festival, commenting that, "Auckland is not a good venue. Festivals thrive in smaller locations, where they don't have to compete.
"If I ever revive it, it will be in Hawkes Bay. You have sunshine, art deco buildings, food and wine, and you can walk in the street and meet the people from last night's concert."By William Dart Email William