Vivaldi in Venice part 2: a post-script from the rambler’s listening room

In 2018, hi-fi journalist Neville Roberts flew to Venice to attend the live recording of audiophile label Chasing the Dragon’s Vivaldi in Venice album. At home in the UK, Dave Denyer listens to the recording on copy master tape. Spoiler alert: “this is one of the most wonderfully captivating examples of the recording art I’ve ever experienced”.

I’ll be honest, I was green with envy on reading Neville’s report of the Vivaldi in Venice recordings. It was clearly an incredible experience to actually be there. So I contented myself with the next best thing – a copy of the tapes, and settled down to listen in my system at home. The deck was my Studer A812, the rest of the system comprising the Aesthetix Calypso Eclipse linestage and Atlas Signature power amp, with Kudos Titan 707 loudspeakers. The system is mainly wired with Gamut Reference cabling, and the icing on the audiophile accessories cake is provided by a combination of CAD Ground Controls and Furutech NCF Boosters.

Vivaldi in Venice on my Studer A812

If hi-fi is all about fidelity to the original event, just how close could I get here to joining Neville and the Interpreti Veneziani at Venice’s San Vidal concerts?

There and beyond, is my answer. Here, the degree of ‘fidelity’ goes so much further than the notes and tones, and the individual and combined musical threads. It goes right into the emotion and the spirit of the players and, I think, creates a direct link back to the intent of the composer – something that can often get lost or obscured. But when you bring together the best interpretation, the best musicianship and the best recording these things all harmonise and synergise to give a spine-tinglingly, hair-raisingly, emotional experience equalled only by – well, y’know, actually being there.

Right from the opening bars of the first piece (Violin Concerto in B minor, RV 386), I’m immediately aware of the tremendous dynamism of the sound. The bass is deep, rich and full and within moments I can sense the dimension of the venue. The bass reverberates, filling the air and hanging in the space for a moment, then reaching out to the boundaries of the venue, defining its size, shape and even architecture. Then the sweet harmonious tones of the violins, so difficult to reproduce well, soar silkily above the bass notes and add to the impression of volume (spatial volume, not loudness). They seem to search out the venue’s nooks and crannies, reflecting perhaps off a surface, be it the marble floor, the walls, ceiling.

The venue in question

It’s an extremely dramatic experience, which is so much more than just listening to a ‘soundstage’. Much more than just stereo width and depth. This is more a question of recreating in my living room the very essence of the space, of the performers in their real positions, of how each instrument interacts not just with every other instrument but equally with the venue and the audience’s ears, including mine.

At the end of the first piece the audience applauds enthusiastically, which only further enhances the impression that I’m not in a living room in the UK in the middle of winter, but rather in a beautiful church in Venice at the height of summer.

The phrasing and melodies are stunningly well preserved throughout. There’s absolutely no smearing, either from the performance in the venue or from the process of recording and reproducing. The effect is to soothe and ease this listener into an almost dream-like state.

As we move into the second piece (Bassoon Concerto in E minor, RV 484), I feel my senses begin to sharpen and I find myself transcending even beyond the initial experience. I can still hear the vast extent of the hall, the precise space and detail of the venue, but now I also start to sense the smell of the air within such a magnificent old building… a slight dustiness, the slight coolness of the marble floors and walls. So magical is this recording that the experience of listening to it expands to become a visceral one. I’m experiencing more than ‘just’ sound, the effect of which is that the suspension of disbelief is almost whole (am I here, am I there?). The utter fidelity of this recording is sublime. Mike Valentine hasn’t just recorded the music, he’s recorded the very event itself: the air, the space, the feeling, the moment, the magic and the absolute wonder.

The closest analogy I can think of is a hologram – like in those futuristic movies where a character from another time and place is ‘beamed in’ to the present moment in full, viscerally alive, detail!

Neville mentions in his report of the live concert recording the request to the audience prior to the performance to avoid coughing, and a father holding his child stock still. Even so, there are plenty of occasional background noises here and there – rustles of scores, shifting of chair legs, gasps and deep breaths – and again, for me this is far from being a problem. On the contrary, it adds to the feeling of reality.

There’s another aspect of audio I want to mention here, in addition to the whole concept of fidelity. It’s not something that’s talked about as often and it’s especially prominent if you’re a hi-fi or music reviewer, or work in the industry generally: and it’s that critical listening can be very ‘hard’ work. Of course I don’t mean in the way that going down a mine shaft or working a 12-hour shift on a hospital ward is hard work. I’m talking about a particular type of mental challenge, which arises because when reproducing music, the brain is asked to do a fair amount of work – reassembling the many and varied recorded sounds and constructing them as music in the brain. Extremely good hi-fi systems and musical recordings help with this very well indeed, but lesser systems / components / recordings require a lot more ‘putting together’, far more processing from the old grey matter. All of which is to say that there’s none of that problem here. Listening to the Vivaldi in Venice tapes is like taking my ears and brain to a kind of hi-fi heath spa, if such a place existed. It left me with a deep sense of calm, peace and beauty. My eyes rejoiced at the blue sky and shaft of winter sunlight bursting into my listening room, while at the same time I was feeling the smell, the feel, the texture and taste of the air in the San Vidal church in Venice.

Main microphone assembly

Of course the choice of microphones and how they are positioned is critical to capturing this level of authenticity, which Neville relates in fascinating detail in his report of the event. Also worthy of note is the fact that Mike Valentine used (for the first time on this recording) hugely expensive Zensati cables from microphone to mains – every cable in the recording chain.

To sum up, this is one of the most wonderfully captivating examples of the recording art I’ve ever experienced. It far surpasses anything I’ve heard recorded in a studio. In fact the particulars of the venue and the moment of the live performance are so key that I almost think the recording credits ought to extend beyond the ‘usual suspects’ to include the architect of the hall, the audience, perhaps even the air, the sun on that day in Venice, the cleaners who swept and polished the floors and left just the right amount of dust to add to the smell, etc etc.

And of course not forgetting Neville Roberts, for his wonderfully detailed account of what must have been a truly incredible week.

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