Melba Recordings: The First Decade
Michael Quinn, Associate Editor of theclassicalreview.com, takes an informed look back at Melba’s first 10 years
The world has always looked different when viewed from Melbourne. It did for Nellie Melba when she left Australia more than a century ago to find fame in far-flung Europe as one of the greatest singers of her age. And it does, today, for her namesake, Melba Recordings, which was founded in the legendary soprano’s hometown a decade ago with the ambitious aim of creating “a Rolls-Royce label that was unstinting in its quality, and that would shift the Euro-centric axis of the music industry”.
Launching a record label is always difficult. Doubly so when it is a classical music label. And immeasurably so back in 2000 when Maria Vandamme decided upon one of the most ambitious undertakings by an Australian arts organisation in a generation. The plan was audacious, too: the creation of a classical recording label of international profile and stature that just happened to be based in Melbourne. Nellie Melba would undoubtedly have approved of Vandamme’s conviction that just because such a thing hadn’t been done before, didn’t mean it couldn’t be done at all.
It wasn’t just that the odds were stacked against the project from the beginning – and they certainly were: classical recording companies, conventional wisdom had it, simply didn’t come from Australia; never had, never would – but in choosing to call the label after Australia’s first, and still greatest, musical export, Vandamme committed herself to Nellie Melba’s own stern career-long credo: “It’s got to be perfection!”
That dictum has now become Melba Recordings' motto; the label driven by much of what drove Nellie Melba herself. “She was”, says an obviously admiring Vandamme, “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”.
Melba Recordings began life at a moment when the very death of the classical recording industry was being proclaimed. Certainly the foundations on which it had been built – the inflexible, one-size-fits-all corporate conglomerates that had come to be called the ‘Majors’ – had begun to disintegrate and crumble. The age of classical recordings was, it was shouted from the rooftops, all but over. But a decade on, the classical recording scene has never been more active, more varied, more successful, more independent, or more international. And Melba Recordings has played its own significant part over the past decade in breathing new life, new vitality, new talent, and new standards for measuring success into an industry in which Europe no longer commands the commercial or critical centre of gravity it did for half a century and more.
And just as other important new independent labels have sprung up throughout the world – Zig-Zag Territoires in France, Atma Classique in Canada, Stradivarius in Italy, Avie in the UK – Melba Recordings, backed by imaginative and forward-looking funding, the support of generous individuals, and fired by an ambition to make the best recordings possible, has raised both its own profile and that of the Australian artists it works with to unprecedented levels of recognition and acclaim on the international stage.
Evidence of such comes with the cascades of applause that greet each Melba Recordings release. Its era-defining recording of Wagner’s mighty Der Ring des Nibelungen in never-before-achieved state-of-the-art SACD sound – equivalent not so much to climbing a musical Everest as to scaling the entire Himalayan mountain range – earned Melba the accolade from Gramophone, the most demanding and prestigious classical music magazine, the accolade of being “the best-sounding cycle on the market to date, bar none”.
It’s that commitment to quality and an agenda-setting attention to detail, that sets Melba apart, each and every release distinguished by what one reviewer described recently as “exceptional elegance of design and packaging, top-notch recordings and innovative programming”.
No less characteristic over Melba’s first 10 years has been its support for established Australian artists – notable among them conductors Richard Bonynge and Simone Young, and singers Cheryl Barker and Stuart Skelton – and emerging talents such as the tenor Steve Davislim, violinist Ray Chen, the twin cellists Pei-Jee and Pei-San Ng, and a long role-call of others. Few labels – certainly none in Australia – can claim to balance heritage and the here-and-now with such assurance or success.
First ever recordings of music by Saint-Saëns, Vierne and Chausson, compelling new interpretations of Bach, Mozart, Schubert and Britten all of them with Australian artists and technicians to the fore – have earned Melba plaudits around the globe, recently winning the label it’s first coveted Gramophone Editor’s Choice accolade.
Echoing Nellie Melba’s assertion that “My voice has been raised…to make the big world outside…understand something of the spirit of my beloved country”, Melba Recordings continues to be an ambassador for Australia and a consistent guarantor of imagination, innovation and quality.
As it looks towards its second decade, Melba Recordings' has hit its creative stride with a string of releases that have drawn acclaim to a label whose best efforts still, surely, lie ahead of it. When she died, Melba left a substantial bequest to fund a singing scholarship, “in the hope” she said, “that another Melba may arise”. The growing success of Melba Recordings on the world stage suggest that Dame Nellie’s wish has come true in the unexpected guise of an truly international classical music recording label that just happens – but proudly so – to be based in Melbourne.