Chasing, and Finding, the Dragon in Venice

by Darryl Lindberg

Every year-and-a-half or so, Catherine and I retreat to Venice for about a month both to enjoy a significant change of scenery and to recharge our batteries—such are they are. We have no substantive agenda other than to wander around in this fascinating, charming, culturally rich, and timeless city.  Of the few activities we do plan, music events are high on the list.  Venice is a city with a spectacular musical history, a tradition of great music and great music-making that appears to be as strong as ever.  Whether your taste runs to opera, the symphonic repertoire, or chamber music, you can spend every night of the week enveloped by music performed by real, live musicians.  Hey, what did you expect from the city that fostered and fascinated so many outstanding musicians?  In addition to Vivaldi (of course), there’s Monteverdi, the Gabrielis (Andrea and his nephew Giovanni), the Marcellos (the brothers Benedetto and Alessandro), Tomaso Albinoni, and Domenico Scarlatti, to name just a few.  And then there are composers from Liszt to Wagner to Stravinsky to Britten who succumbed to the charms of La Serenissima (Stravinsky and his wife are even buried there).

This year I booked five operas, a Pergolesi Stabat Mater (on Easter afternoon, no less!), and three of Interpreti Veneziani’s concerts at the historic San Vidal church (nota bene:  all churches in Venice are historic).  We’ve been to a few other Venetian instrumental ensembles, but we’ve found Interpreti Veneziani to be the best by far:  a very high degree of musicianship, interesting programs, and performances that are never mundane—even when playing the Four Seasons, a work that can be heard at least ten other venues on any given Venetian evening.  This group performs about 340 concerts a year in Venice and in other parts of the globe (they’ll be touring Latin America in November), and yet every concert we’ve attended they sounded fresh and enthusiastic, playing the centuries-old music as if newly minted.

A few years ago, after our very first I-V concert, I meandered over to the table that offered the group’s many CDs for sale, thinking that I’d pick up a memento or two of the evening.  As I was casually perusing these digital offerings, I was immediately attracted to the unmistakable shape of an LP among plastic jewel cases.  Good grief:  vinyl?!! Yes, it was an honest-to-goodness thirty-three-and-a-third black plastic disc.  Not only that, it was recorded direct-to-disc.  Egad!  And yes, it was the Four Seasons, but I’d just heard I-V give an outstanding rendition of this work, so I thought the €25 they were asking for the disc at the time (November 2015) would be money well spent.  I’ll confess here that I knew I already had more LP versions of Vivaldi’s famous opus than is the normal human allotment (it turned out that I had sixteen other versions); however, it’s not often you can find you can find an LP of a contemporary classical music ensemble recorded direct-to-disc.  The U.K. based Chasing the Dragon label was unfamiliar to me, but I reckoned that any company that’s willing to spend the time and money to record a direct-to-disc LP (catalog #CTDLPI001) these days was worth supporting.

This disc turned out to be excellent in terms of interpretation—not surprising, given that I’d already heard the ensemble’s capabilities—and sound:  authentic instrumental dynamics, timbre, “there-ness,” and all the other qualities one hopes would be embedded in D2D grooves. In short, the record is pretty darn amazing.  The one very minor observation I’ll make is that the sound is a bit drier and less bloomy than what I’ve heard at the San Vidal church.  However, I chalk that up to the recording venue, which happened to be a studio, albeit a very well-regarded studio:  Air Studios, London.

The three I-V concerts we attended this trip encompassed I-V’s entire repertoire for the month of April. The afternoon of our last Intrepreti concert Catherine and I happened to stop into San Vidal to check out the church’s spectacular art and the exhibit of stringed instruments created by twentieth-century Italian luthiers.  While we were gawking, we came across a group of folks unpacking and setting up microphones and equipment, obviously to record that night’s concert.  Curious, I poked my big fat nose around and saw a goodly selection of what were clearly ZenSati cables in one of the flight cases they were unpacking.  Since I heard them speaking English—and British English, at that—I accosted these poor folks to ask about their plans.

Well, it turned out it was Mike Valentine (Mr. Chasing the Dragon), who was in Venice to record all five of Interpreti Veneziani’s concerts that week.  Even though Mike was busy with the setup, he graciously answered my inquiries, which I tried to keep at a minimum.  Also on hand was Hi-Fi Choice writer Neville Roberts, with whom I had a great time discussing the upcoming concert, recording, and audio esoterica in general.  Mike’s recording setup was straightforward—at least according to my marginal techno-knowledge—but the equipment was from the upper level of the top shelf (read further on for the listing).   As importantly, his setup was clearly meticulous: a function of a wealth of experience along with a great pair of ears.

Since the seating for Interpreti Veneziani concerts is of the “general admission” variety, Catherine and I are inevitably among the first in line, so we can get the upfront “splatter” seats.  This tactic not only secures us a wonderful listening experience, it allows Catherine, at 5’2”, to see the performers.  Just before the concert began, Mike motioned me over to hear a snippet of a recent, unreleased at the time, Chasing the Dragon’s choral recording.  In a word, it was stunning.  But the real thrill was at the evening concert’s “halftime,” when I listened to a bit of the playback of the just-performed Tartini Violin Concerto in e minor, D.56.  Although I’m an analog aficionado, I try not to be doctrinaire about it, as I’ve always believed that keeping an open mind—what little mind I have—is always the best policy.  And, when I donned the headphones plugged into Mike’s Nagra, I was flabbergasted at how well the recording captured the wonderful space and ambiance of the San Vidal church.  Now I’ve found that my audio memory becomes increasingly unreliable as the time from the original event increases.  But hey, I’d just heard I-V play it, so when I say it was déjà vu all over again (thanks, Yogi), I’m not whistling zippideedoodah.

After the concert, I asked Mike if he’d mind if I e-mailed him a few questions when I got back home to provide some details, given that I wasn’t equipped or in a position to take notes—at least any that would be worthwhile—and he jovially agreed. Here’s our exchange:

DL:  When—and in which formats—will these Intrepreti Veneziani concerts be released?

MV:  We have created from the 5 concerts a double album.  The double CD is available now, directly from Chasing the Dragon and in a few weeks’ time from Elusive Disc.  The hi-res downloads in double and single DSD and 24/192 PCM are available NOW on the download section of our website.  We will also be releasing the concert on two ¼” copy master tapes which are taken from the master tape recordings that we made towards the end of the week.  The double LP has now been cut and will be available from both us and Elusive very soon.  We have also released the Binaural recordings as a double album also available on our download section.

DL: What is the name of the amazing choral group recording you played for me just before the concert?

MV:  The choral piece that I played for you was from our new “Temple Church Concert” album which will be available very soon as hi-res downloads, copy master tape and CD.  Again, check out our website for details which are now up.

DL:  Is it possible to provide a brief list of the equipment used?

MV:  The microphones we used in Venice were a pair of 60-year-old AKG C12 Valve microphones which were used as the main pair.  These were supplemented with a DPA 4006 microphone on the 1stviolins and a U47 FET which was placed in front of Davide’s [Amadio] cello.  We used 2 Tascam DA3000 DSD recorders and a Nagra 6 hi-res PCM recorder, along with a Studer A810 1/4’” recorder.  Sennheiser HD800S headphones were used for monitoring and mic and power cables were supplied by Nordost from their Ax Angel Studio line and all balanced line level interconnects were “Zorro” from Zensati.

DL:  Any special recording techniques, set up procedures, venue considerations, etc.?

MV:  I decided to use a pair of valve C12 microphones set to omnidirectional for I wanted to capture the beautiful acoustics of San Vidal Church as well as the outstanding playing qualities of Interpreti Veneziani.  I had already worked with the orchestra having recorded 2 of their albums for their own label previously.  However, this time I convinced them that we should record using San Vidal Church for its wonderful acoustic qualities and I convinced the orchestra that we should record “live” which seems to have certainly added to the “jump factor”.  We had the opportunity of having whole day to set all the equipment up which certainly enabled us to achieve great results with respect to mic placement etc., for normally one does not have the luxury of time to fine-tune everything.

DL:  Any other comments you would consider pertinent?

MV:  Yes!  I would say the largest contribution after the acoustics and the wonderful abilities of the orchestra would be the use of audiophile cables used throughout the recording chain.  Many engineers do not believe that cables make a difference, however, I think that a major contribution of the jump factor of our recording has been the respect that we have given our delicate signals by using very high-quality audiophile cabling.

I haven’t heard the new Chasing the Dragon double LP of these concerts, but I was there for the first night of the recording and I can tell you if the records sound anything like what I heard from headphone feed from the Nagra recorder, you’ll be in for a treat. Mike also sent me a “wet transfer” of a segment of the recording and, believe me, it brought me right back to San Vidal church, even through my pathetic “low-fi” computer headphones. And I’d recommend seeking out Four Seasons disc if you’re at all into vinyl.  Of course, even if a turntable has never graced your collection of audio paraphernalia, you can enjoy Chasing the Dragon recordings in a wide range of formats, as CDs, downloads, and tapes.  Which reminds to mention that I’d also recommend checking out the “Temple Church Concert” recording, based on what I heard.

So now you know how I spent part of my Venice vacation.  If you can get to Venice, great:  there’s more than enough musical—and cultural—activities to keep you occupied. But if you can’t and want a healthy helping of the sounds of Venice, of exceptionally well-performed music exceptionally well-recorded, chase that dragon!