Melba Recordings

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MELBA enters the second decade

Wednesday, 14 December 2011 - 6:00am

Stepping into its second decade this year, Melba Recordings was formed to promote Australia’s classical music sector and to provide its talents, both established and emerging, with a platform at home and abroad.

Such ambition was matched by one of the most audacious projects undertaken by any Australian arts organisation in recent memory with the launch of the label in 2000. Its agenda was simplicity itself: the creation of a classical music label that would serve the country’s finest musicians and composers by establishing an Australian classical music brand with state-of-the-art production values that would attract international recognition and respect.

It was not an easy task. The aim of Melba’s Melbourne-born founder and Chief Executive Maria Vandamme to create “a Rolls-Royce label that was unstinting in its quality, and that would shift the Euro-centric axis of the music industry” was met at home with something approaching nonplussed ambivalence, and abroad with what amounted to mild bemusement.

While Australia’s domestic classical recording industry was already established, compared to the scale and stature of its European and American counterparts, it was, and remains, a distinctly cottage-industry-sized affair) no native label – or, indeed, any existing classical music organisation – had ever made so concerted a play for membership of the international elite. Unsurprisingly, the notion of an Australian recording label with pretensions to taking its place on the world stage seemed, to many commentators elsewhere, like exotic whimsy.But it is one of the successes of Melba Recordings that in challenging the parochial indolence of a domestic industry that saw classical music only in terms of the lowest common commercial demoninator, and Australian music and musicians in terms only of Australia, it has quickly established itself as a classical label on a par with the most innovative and imaginative independent recording companies to be found anywhere in the world.

With a catalogue soon to be more than 50 titles in size, Melba Recordings has managed to do the unthinkable: demonstrating – and unequivocally so – that Australia’s classical musicians, composers and conductors had reached a critical cultural mass of sufficient achievement, confidence and imagination to want – and warrant – their place on the international stage.

From the start, Melba has celebrated the old, championed the new, and managed to create and capture history. Its 14-disc recording of Wagner’s monumental Der Ring des Nibelungen in cutting-edge, multi-channel Super Audio sound was an achievement that older, more venerable and considerably better resourced labels would have balked at realising. It also documented the first-ever full staging, by the State Opera of South Australia in 2004, of the imposing tetralogy in Australia. (Where, one might be forgiven for asking, was the national broadcaster ABC, with its public broadcasting remit and hands deep in the honey pot of the government purse when the most expensive arts event ever staged in Australia was happening.)

Hailed by the prestigious Gramophone magazine as “the best-sounding cycle on the market to date, bar none”, The Ring did what no recording since the prime of Australia’s greatest musical export, Nellie Melba, more than a century before had managed to do: put Australian classical music making securely on the international stage. It is no exaggeration to say that its release re-ordered the classical music landscape, adding Melbourne to the select list of important international musical centres.

Other releases, featuring a Who’s Who of Australian talent, have also caught the approving eye and ear of public and pundits elsewhere – premiere recordings of music by Saint-Saëns, Chausson, Vierne and Koechlin; the debut on disc of violinist Ray Chen; recordings by Cheryl Barker, Paul Dean and Barry Tuckwell; the multi-volume Richard Bonynge Edition, to name but a few – to cement Melba’s stature as a global player, and its reputation as the most articulate advocate for Australia’s classical music industry for international audiences.

That ambassadorial role has been achieved with enlightened support from both the public and private sector – though, it’s worth noting in passing, that in the current financial year, ABC will receive $1.1 billion of public funding, 163 times more than Melba Recordings has received in its first decade – and its continuance will remain crucial as it looks to consolidate what it has achieved thus far and build upon it in its second decade.

It’s indicative of how close the fortunes of Melba and the largesse of public funding are perceived to be abroad that it prompted this rather astonishing comment from one international critic in a review: “all credit to the Australian Government for having the percipience to fund [Melba]… The closest thing to hot cakes in years”.

Closer to home, Melba’s achievements haven’t gone altogether unnoticed, the eminent Malcolm Long, a creative force in broadcasting and communications hailing the label as “a unique Australian cultural institution of global relevance” and declaring that it “has become Australia’s global classical music recording label”.

In taking the name of its illustrious predecessor Melba Recordings has set its own benchmark for realising the great Diva’s exacting credo – “It’s got to be perfection!”

Melba Recordings began at the very moment when the death of the classical recording industry was being proclaimed as the totemic foundations on which it had been built were found to be pillars of salt. But a decade on, the industry has never been more active, more varied, more successful, more independent, or more international. The achievements of Melba Recordings, surely, is eloquent testimony to that.

That Australia should have produced a label of international standing says much about the imagination and courage of Maria Vandamme and Melba Recordings, but it also points to the maturity of the country’s classical musicians and composers and their readiness to – literally – play their part, as never before, on the international stage.

Michael Quinn

Michael Quinn is a former Deputy Editor of Gramophone magazine, and the Associate Editor of