Obituary published by the Daily Telegraph (10 Jan 2001 )
ISABELLA WALLICH, who has died aged 84, was the first woman record producer and the first woman to run her own record company; she helped to make the careers of Sir Geraint Evans and Dame Janet Baker, and popularised both Welsh folk music and the works of Mahler.
When she set up Delyse records in 1954, Isabella Wallich was said by the press to be “a housewife from St John’s Wood”. This was an accurate description, but not one that took account of her experience as a concert pianist, or her family background. Her uncle and mentor Fred Gaisberg had been the force behind EMI Records and Abbey Road studios in the early years of the century. He had also brought Caruso before the public for the first time with a disc that he had to finance himself.
When she came to set up her company, Isabella Wallich recalled the advice of her uncle and looked for a specialised market. Her friendship with the cellist David Ffrangcon-Thomas and the harpist Osian Ellis had introduced her to the wealth of music then coming out of Wales, and she decided to record Welsh folk music, both choral and harp.
The first Delyse recording, featuring Ffrangcon-Thomas and Ellis playing together, proved a great success with critics and the public, and Delyse soon became a by-word for Welsh and later Irish folk music. Soon, too, she was recording classical works selected on the same lines as her choice of Welsh music.
“The field is crowded,” she believed. “No use doing The Messiah – there are nine LPs already. No use doing Beethoven’s symphonies either.” Instead she recorded baroque and chamber music, and then produced records for children, such as Edward Lear’s nonsense rhymes and the Thomas the Tank Engine stories, which were read by Johnny Morris. These sold well, and were among the first records to tap into the juvenile market.
In 1961, Isabella Wallich recorded the Welsh baritone Geraint Evans singing arias from oratorio in Llandaff Cathedral. Evans was already well-known in operatic roles, but had not yet had a solo record devoted to his talents.
The critics were bowled over. One wrote: “How strange that it should take one of the smaller record companies to produce the first solo recital to be made by one of the few really international singers these islands have produced since the war. The music surges off the disc.”
Five years later, Wallich recorded Evans again, this time singing Des Knaben Wunderhorn with a young Janet Baker, who was just embarking on her career. Mahler’s songs had only been recorded once before, and the production was very well received, particularly as Delyse had succeeded in using British singers, a British orchestra and a British conductor (Wyn Morris).
Indeed, such was the success of the LP that bigger companies cancelled their own plans to record the work when they heard Delyse’s version.
Another musician who prospered under Isabella Wallich’s guidance was the classical guitarist John Williams. She met him when he was just 16, and having recognised his talent, made the first recording of a recital by him. By 1969, her stature in the business was such that she was granted sole rights to the recording of the Investiture of the Prince of Wales at Caernarvon Castle.
Her skill as a record producer was enhanced by her own musical talent, and by her love of the business. “You must know the music, know the score, to succeed,” she said. “And you have to be able to listen with unflagging attention. I think I have some flair at spotting what people want.”
She was born Isabella Valli in Milan on March 12 1916. Her mother was an American opera singer, her father an Italian businessman whom she had met while singing at La Scala.
Isabella and her family moved to England when she was five and she grew up surrounded by well-known musicians. She learnt to play the piano at four and before she was 20 was playing on the international circuit.
When she was 16 and at the Paris Conservatoire, her uncle asked her to look after Sir Edward Elgar, who was visiting the city for the first performance in France of his violin concerto. But on arriving at the concert hall with the composer, she found their entry barred; the policeman on duty did not recognise Elgar, and refused to admit the pair without tickets. The situation tested her diplomatic (and linguistic) skills to the full.
Her uncle, Fred Gaisberg, spent much time at Covent Garden, and as his unofficial personal assistant she met there many of
the great musicians of the early 20th century, including Arturo Toscanini, Sir John Barbirolli, Wilhelm Furtwangler, Sir Thomas Beecham, the Menuhin family and the Wagners. She became a lifelong friend of Friedelind Wagner, Richard Wagner’s granddaughter.
The outbreak of war cut short her promising career as a concert pianist. In 1939 she married Dick Corbett, who was in business in the East Indies. Soon she had two small sons to look after.
In 1951, however, Dick Corbett was murdered by Communist guerrillas while visiting a rubber plantation in Malaya. His widow set about rebuilding her life and through a friend who worked for EMI she was given the chance in 1952 to manage the Philharmonia Orchestra on its first post-war tour of Europe, under Herbert von Karajan.
Her relationship with von Karajan was not warm, but she recalled with pleasure the joys and frustrations of “playing nanny” to musicians during a particularly successful tour.
In 1954, she married again, to Aubrey Wallich, a family friend, but he died in 1960. She overcame this blow, and went on to make successful recordings of Mahler’s symphonies, as well as to stage several series of concerts at the Royal Albert Hall and at the Cunard Hotel. In 1979, however, her financial backers became insolvent, although she continued to produce records for a number of years afterwards.
She moved to Paris to be near one of her sons and his family in 1994. She had recently completed work on a memoir, Recording My Life, which is to published next month.