Melba Recordings

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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.

Ring in the round

Saturday, 22 July 2006 - 12:00am

A small Australian record label is daring to take an untrodden path with SACD, Michael Quinn reports

Is the recording industry dying? If the fate of the so-called major labels is any indication, then yes it is. With Warner Classics the latest high profile casualty: Still a relative infant in the middle of its second decade, Warner’s sorry fate has been to be subsumed into a ‘reissues division’ called, without a smidgeon of irony, Rhino. Aren’t they on an endangered list somewhere?

For too long record executives and their accountants seem to have subscribed to a misheard Darwinian notion that only the fattest would survive. Thus, multinational conglomerates voraciously swallowed up smaller labels over the past half-century, treating the making of records in the same way that Henry Ford approached the manufacturing of cars. The product-led formula has resulted in a market that is both saturated and stultified.

But the bell has not begun to toll just yet. Recording aficionados have long known that the industry has been kept alive by the imagination, the innovation and the sometimes incalculable courage of the independent sector, where quality has been measured by artistic achievement rather than by accountants. Hyperion, Chandos, Naxos and Harmonia Mundi are all gleaming examples that quality really will out.

Currently, the industry—despite the Doomsday headlines — is experiencing another period of regeneration. This time the new ideas and agenda-changing ambitions are emanating from unexpected sources: Zig-Zag Territoires in France, Atma Classique in Canada. Stradivarius in Italy and. perhaps most surprisingly of all, Melba Recordings in Australia.

Founded in 2000, Melba takes more than just its name from Australia’s legendary operatic superstar. It also shares a birthplace — Melbourne — and, under the seemingly inexhaustible guidance of its founder and managing director, Maria Vandamme, a strict adherence to Dame Nellie’s own unwavering mantra: ‘It’s got to be perfection’.

An experienced and respected producer for ABC, Australia’s national broadcaster, for two decades, Vandamme created the label, she says, to champion the cause of the country’s classical music performers at home and abroad. From the off she set out to create ‘a Rolls-Royce label that was unstinting in its quality, and one that would shift the Euro-centric axis of the music industry.’

‘Melba,’ says Vandamme with obvious pride, ‘was a fabulous, larger than life character with an unflinching determination to achieve what she believed was the right thing to do. And she had great pride in the maturity of Australia’s culture. Melba Recordings shares that belief. In a new century, Australia’s musicians need a platform that will raise their profile abroad as never before.’

Still only six years old, and with a back catalogue only just into double figures, Melba has chosen the most conspicuous of ways of announcing itself to the world: producing the first ever recording of Wagner’s mighty Ring Cycle in state-of-the-art surround-sound Super Audio CD. It is arguably the most significant record ever to come out of Australia, and one of the most important yardsticks for the current health of the industry.

‘SACD is what its name implies; a superior version of the compact disc — a technology now 20 years old!’ says Vandamme ‘because it uses a sampling frequency 65 times that of a conventional CD, the sound that SACD captures and recreates is more accurate, detailed and warm. Put that together with the opportunity to listen in surround sound, and the listener has the exciting sensation of being in the theatre on the night of performance.’

Which no doubt will be a boon to those of us who weren’t in Adelaide in the winter of 2004 for the much acclaimed State Opera of South Australia production of the complete Ring, around which Vandamme has built her recording. This month sees the release of its first installment, Die Walküre.

‘The world doesn’t need another version of the Ring.’ Vandamme candidly volunteers. ‘I can see no earthly reason for another edition to be made in this already over-crowded market unless it is special. Every record Melba makes is guided by that principle, and with this recording you have one of the world’s greatest musical masterpieces created with a contemporary audience in mind and using a technology which sounds so much more real than straight stereo.’

Walküre is not Melba’s first SACD recording, a well-received account of Ferdinand Hérold’s rarely-heard ballet, La somnambule pipped it to the post. That performance was conducted by Australia’s undoubted ‘Dean of the Podium’, Richard Bonynge, whose praise of Vandamme is unstinting

‘Maria has the most fantastic set of ears,’ he approvingly declares, ‘I mean she’s a great musician and she wants quality, quality, quality. And I think she’s delivering that.’

Which may be just as well given that Vandamme in a bold but still controversial move side-stepped conventional funding protocol in her native Australia to appeal directly to the country’s prime minister and finance minister. The manoeuvre worked, gaining her an unheard of grant of AUS$5m (£2.5m) in 2004 ...

The money has helped Vandamme realise the first part of her dream and delivered the most sophisticated recording of the most demanding opera cycle while also giving her necessary seed-funding to turn Melba into an international record company that just happens to be based in Australia. If she succeeds, she will have done much to re-order the future of the classical recording industry. And she will have demonstrated in the most eloquent and articulate of ways what record buyers have long known to be true: that as far as making records goes, small really is beautiful.

Michael Quinn
Classical Music (UK)