Argentinean composer Ezequiel Vinao (born 1960) has a passionate interest in large scale forms, dominated by lengthy vocal lines and slowly emerging textures that interweave and then recede again. This interest, really coming to the fore for him only in the 1990s, seems a perfect fit for what also must be a passion, at least if we are to take the texts of this work seriously: the philosophical basis for modern day faith.
Arcanum (deep secret or mystery) is a large cantata, based on a variety of texts beginning with the Prologus of Virgil’s Book 6 of the Aeneid, interspersed with sections for the Old and New testaments, Parmenides, Plotinus, John Scotus Erigena, Augustine, Plutarch, and Angelus Silesius. The texts, though basically short, are profound, suggestive, and evocative. The music he is inspired by covers a span of 900 years, and he tries to “examine” the texts musically, using the medium to illuminate the development of thought as represented by the texts. In this you will be reminded of the slowly unfolding mystical reveries of Messiaen, with whom the composer spent a great deal of time.
And like that great luminary, he only partially succeeds. While I don’t doubt for a moment that Vinao gets great inspiration from these writings, in the end you just listen and react, like you do to all music. It doesn’t matter a whit whether the texts are by Augustine or Plotinus—the listener does not follow the philosophical train of thought in the texts word by word to see if the music is somehow able to expand on it, anymore than a listener of Bernstein’s Serenade is following the rather elaborate conceptions behind that work. More likely he is just tapping his foot to the bouncy rhythms.
There are few bouncy rhythms here, though occasionally we run into some passages that have interesting rhythmical concepts. Vinao is a master at imitating a wide variety of medieval forms, and fuses them with modern day emotions. But in the end the hearer must be willing to suspend any sense of developmental activity for the simply auditory pleasure of some colorful, elongated, and meditative music, sans the philosophical underpinnings. The notes go to great lengths explaining the basis for the composition, but I am afraid that ultimately the music does not convey the plenitude of thought in the philosophy, and must be judged—as all music—as music alone. It is partially successful, but lacks a certain unifying concept aside from the general mood set in the opening bars.
One cannot complain about the excellent SACD sound, and the varied instrumentation—string quartet, bass, trombones, oboe, and percussion—are quite colorful and expertly played. Soprano Youngdahl is very good, though I detect some strain in several of the movements, but the music is quite exposed in many places. This is a composer to watch, though those interested in medieval and renaissance music, or the more long winded passages of Messiaen will profit the most from this effort.
— Steven Ritter