by Andy Fawcett
July 28th 1957 is a date forever etched into audio folklore; for upon that day, the Decca Company made the very first stereo recording of Wagner’s epic, 15-hour Ring Cycle. November 16th 2004 marked an achievement that, in context, is surely more momentous still; the first recording of the entire Ring Cycle in high resolution, DSD Surround Sound. Gramophone magazine hailed it as “the best-sounding cycle on the market to date, bar none”. It was made by a boutique classical label, with a mere handful of recordings to its credit … a boutique classical label from Australia. Welcome to Melba Recordings; the little company that thinks big!
Few, I suspect, are fully aware of just how great a contribution Australian performers have made, and continue to make, in the field of classical music. If asked to name the two greatest sopranos of the Twentieth Century, it would hardly be controversial to nominate Nellie Melba and Joan Sutherland – both are Australian. Indeed, it was Dame Nellie’s struggle to establish herself in far-off lands that led her to bequest a singing scholarship, “in order that another Melba may arise”. And so one has … though not, perhaps, in quite the form Dame Nellie imagined. The Foundation that bears her name was established in 2001, its patronage the cream of Australian musical society, to fulfil the charitable role of promoting Australian classical musicians both at home and abroad. Certainly, there was a tremendous vein of home-grown talent ready to be tapped; crucially, though, the Foundation’s recording arm chose to take an outward-looking perspective. While relying almost entirely upon local performers, the choice of programming has been deliberately eclectic and focussed largely on European music, from the Baroque to the present day. The bonus for audiophiles is that the company, whose principals have a strong professional background behind the mixing desk, is committed to capturing it in the best possible sound quality.
The results have been, by any standards, spectacular! Recent premiere recordings of works by French composers Jongen, Koechlin, Vierne, Chausson, Damase and Saint-Saëns’ opera “Hélène” have received rapturous acclaim from critics across the globe, particularly the demanding French classical press. In a catalogue currently comprising less than forty discs, Melba have covered a wide array of Classical styles, from standard repertoire Mozart to an Ophicleide recital (a rare brass instrument, described as an “anorexic tuba”!). There is something of an emphasis on vocal music, including several opera compilations under the baton of Richard Bonynge, whose untiring support – along with the recently departed, and much lamented, Joan Sutherland – was invaluable in the company’s early days. Every aspect of these performances, the quality of the recordings and the packaging and presentation of the discs is absolutely top-notch. I investigate two recent examples in our Recommended New Releases section.
Curious about the continuing endorsement of SACD by many of the smaller classical labels, at a time when Sony seems to have cut the format adrift, I queried it with Melba’s Ian Perry. While frustrated by the incompatibility of DSD with computer audio formats, which he described as “a ridiculous annoyance and a waste”, he does feel that even modestly-priced SACD players are well able to demonstrate the format’s sonic superiority. Further, its 5.1 channel capability allows the spatial characteristics of a performance to be better captured – such as the recording of “Hélène”, the orchestration of which required “an interplay between different ensembles, near and far, front and rear, half heard party music in the distance, solo voices off stage, the distant wailing of lost souls and finally the lovers disappearing into the night, a whole gamut of surround effects “! The SACD’s pre-eminence in defining instrumental placement and tonal colours can also recommend it for stereo recordings with very sparse textures, singers with a characteristic articulation or for big orchestral works; the company’s solo piano recordings, on the other hand, have all been CD only. Ian accepts that SACD will remain a niche product, threatened by the improving quality and falling cost of conventional DACs, and Melba will be offering downloads in the “immediate future” – the formats anticipated to include MP3 at 320 kbps, CD quality 16/44.1 in flac and lossless WMA and 24/96 in both flac and lossless WMA.
Melba is justifiably proud of its stable of young Australian artists, many of whom base themselves overseas. Northern audiences should particularly keep an eye open for tenor Steve Davislim, horn player Lin Jiang, cellist brothers Pei-Jee and Pei-Sian Ng, and violinists Kristian Winther and Ray Chen (winner of the 2008 Yehudi Menuhin competition, and featured on the label’s latest release of Stravinsky’s music for piano and violin). Pressed for a sneak preview of upcoming projects, Ian Perry revealed a mouth-watering live recording of Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending” and Britten’s “Sinfonia da Requiem” by the Sydney Symphony. Also in the pipeline are more little-known gems from Saint-Saëns; ballet music from his operas – a staple of the Parisian music scene at the close of the Nineteenth Century – and another opera, the details of which remain a closely-guarded secret. The company’s philosophy when choosing new projects was highlighted by founder Maria Vandamme in a recent interview with the prestigious Fanfare magazine; “I begin with the premise that the world doesn’t need more recordings—the only reason for making another is the artistic one: It has to offer the listener something of high merit and reward.”
This year sees the tenth birthday of Melba Recordings; an improbable story of a small classical label managing to thrive far from the world’s major cultural centres, at a time of great upheaval within the industry. Their secret, surely, has been a staunch adherence to the guiding principle so charmingly stated by the great Dame Nellie Melba: “If I’d have been a housemaid, I would have been the best in Australia—I couldn’t help it. It’s got to be perfection for me”.