Melba Recordings

"... a label of fragrant distinction"

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News from Melba Recordings

Go behind the scenes for insights on our recordings, our artists and our future plans. Follow our artists' schedules and share the excitement of their journeys.

Melba Reborn

Friday, 31 March 2000 - 12:00am

An illustrious name from the past gives today's outstanding Australian musicians a chance for international recording fame.

A new recording label in these days of niche marketing exercises is usually about as thrilling as the next red spot special. Yet on February 24 this year the Melbourne Concert Hall was abuzz for the launch of Melba Recordings. Conductor Richard Bonynge, internationally the highest-profile conductor Australia has produced was there. The Federal Minister for the Arts, the Hon. Peter McGuaran considered it important enough to launch it himself. He was introduced by soprano Marilyn Richardson who had flown from Brisbane.

The person causing all the excitement was not Dame Nellie but founder and managing director Maria Vandamme. A small woman with a big personality and a taste for exotic colour, she is one of the most respected classical music producers in recording and broadcasting. She produced the best selling classical recording in Australia, Yvonne Kenny's "Simple Gifts".

Few classical recording producers are known by name, with the possible exception of John Culshaw, who produced the epic Solti Ring for Decca. Yet in the musical world, Vandamme, who counts both Culshaw and the late conductor George Tintner among her mentors, has forged an international reputation for the quality and integrity of her work.

Now she has left the ABC to go it alone, to make CDs, documentaries and DVD recordings. Well, not quite alone. In her flower-filled headquarters she tells me of her passion for Massenet, a passion she shares with Richard Bonynge. Although both are convinced the time has come again for the French composer, neither could persuade an existing label of this. Fortunately Vandamme found a group of Australian investors prepared to back her venture. "I was just so lucky to find someone who believes in the label and is working round the clock to get it off the ground," she says.

Vandamme had long nursed a wider vision: that of recording Australian singers and musicians at their peak so they can compete on an equal footing with those on international labels. To do this she needed new repertoire, hence the lesser-known Massenet. "I can see no earthly reason for another edition to be made in this already overcrowded market unless it is incredibly special, so each record I make is guided by that principle. I am not a feel-good label. Melba really does exist to forge some sort of credibility for our artists internationally. "

Considering the cost of recordings, she is very excited by the level of interest and support she has received. Now she needs to win the local presenters. "We do hear an awful lot of Deutsche Grammophon and Decca and Philips records played on music stations."

"I just hope this label will capture the attention of the presenters, because I don't have the marketing dollar the multinationals have," she says, adding, "And I have been told by top reviewers in London, that my product stands on its own."

The first Melba release, Amoureuse: Sacred and Profane Arias by Jules Massenet is French perfume on disc, tailor-made for the 'Swoon' market. Scheduled for an April release it features Bonynge and soprano Rosamund Illing with the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra. Among Illing's few recordings is an outstanding recital on the English Chandos label of Duparc and Poulenc with Melbourne pianist David McSkimming. Vandamme produced it.

Amoureuse bears the prefix: 'The Richard Bonynge Edition'. It is Vandamme's tribute to the conductor in his 70th energetic year. She uses terms like "privilege" to describe their working relationship.

Their next collaboration is a recital featuring Australian soprano Deborah Reidel. But their most ambitious project is the first recording of the original edition of Offenbach's La Vie Parisienne which Bonynge, with the aid of musicologist and Opera Australia chorus member Robert Mitchell, has painstakingly researched. Already word is out. Now Vandamme is discussing casting with names to make readers' mouths water.

A further coup is signing Simone Young. Opera Australia's future Artistic Director has recorded a programme of Strauss Lieder with expatriate Australian tenor Steve Davislim and the State Orchestra of Victoria. Vandamme enthuses that under Young the orchestra sounds world-class. "They are specialised in opera and therefore very good accompanists."

Davislim is a case in point of an Australian singer in greater demand overseas than here. Vandamme is passionate about bringing such musicians to a wider public, at home and abroad, through quality recordings.

"Australia really needs to discover its own Pavarotti," she says.

This passion has great appeal for Marilyn Richardson. "It's a very positive step with Maria's avowed intention, to conjoin the right forces," she tells me. "...people who are passionate and capable. She takes great care to get the ingredients right for that whole magic pudding."

Referring to recordings as a singer's fingerprint - the one means to encapsulate a singer's individuality - she considers that only one thing can be worse for a fine singer than to go unrecorded - and that is to be poorly recorded.

"You can get a bad balance of soloist and orchestra, you can be paired with musicians who are not sympathetic to what you are trying to perform."

"But Maria can find a conductor for whom an orchestra will sit up and really, really try."

"She looks for people who can bring a lot to it and gives them the opportunity to do these out-of-the-way things that the market is looking for."

To Marilyn Richardson, recordings are the singer's only chance for posterity. "We can never know how Farinelli really sounded."

Even in our lifetime, she says, a number of great musicians will be forgotten because nobody recorded them, or worse, their recordings were never released.

"For a singer your best performing years don't last forever. It's just a little more longevity than a ballet dancer: not too many years at the top."

Andrew Scott