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Ezequiel VIÑAO (b. 1960)
Arcanum (1996)
Janet Youngdahl (soprano)
Absolute Ensemble/Kristian Järvi
rec. Master Sound Astoria Studios, Queens, New York, May 2001
BIS-SACD-1187 [60:32]


Ezequiel Viñao was born in 1960 in Argentina. There he studied piano and composition, the latter with Jacobo Ficher, before moving to New York where he attended the Juilliard School studying, among others, with Milton Babbitt. Later, he was invited to Avignon to work with Olivier Messiaen in a series of televised master-classes. These have apparently exerted considerable influence on his musical progress, as Arcanum seemingly demonstrates. Although we are not told one way or the other in the excellent notes, he may be a relative of another Buenos Aires-born composer Alejandro Viñao (b. 1951). As it happens, Alejandro also studied with Jacobo Ficher and later settled in Britain.

Arcanum is an ambitious and substantial work for soprano and instrumental ensemble comprising oboe/cor anglais, tenor/alto trombone, bass trombone, percussion (two players), tabla and string quintet. Incidentally, the Indian tabla is the only “exotic” instrument in the ensemble, and is used quite discreetly – and very efficiently – in several movements. The whole piece is structured in two parts of fairly equal length consisting of nine sections each. There are two purely instrumental sections in each part (Sequentia I and II in the first part, and Tractus I and II in part two). The texts set in the vocal sections are drawn from a wide variety of sources (Virgil’s Aeneid, Exodus, Parmenides, Kings, Plotinus and Corinthians in Part I; and Scotus Erigena, Ecclesiastes, Plutarch, Apocalypse, Saint Augustine, Exodus and Angelus Silesius’ Cherubinischer Wandersmann in Part II). So, as remarked in the insert notes, Arcanum “journeys through time, the concept of time itself and the nature of knowledge”. This journey is also reflected in the music which is based on numerous old models such as Pérotin and Gesualdo. The piece as a whole may be experienced as a multi-faceted ritual dealing with a number of concerns relating to light and darkness, life and death, the mystery (“arcanum” in Latin) of life. Part I is generally darker in its questionings. It opens with an excerpt from the Aeneid (“On they went dimly, beneath the lonely night amid the gloom”) and closes with a fragment by Parmenides (“All is full of light and obscure night together”). Part II opens with a reflective instrumental section Tractus I, moves on with meditations on the permanence of things and ends with a simple, almost naive statement by the German mystic writer Angelus Silesius (i.e. Johannes Scheffler): “The rose is without questions; it blossoms for its blossoms”. The universality of these eternal concerns is further emphasised by the fact that these short literary fragments are sung in various languages: Latin, Greek and German.

As already mentioned, the music draws on old European musical traditions or on non-European music. The most remarkable thing about it is that the music never sounds like pastiche or parody. Quite the contrary; it possesses a timeless quality that – curiously enough – sounds remarkably modern. For most of this substantial piece, the music moves slowly, but it is very colourful and varied with some more animated episodes for contrast’s sake. It is often disarmingly – but deceptively – simple, and impressive and moving for all its apparent simplicity. The composer works wonders with his limited instrumental forces used with considerable imagination and resourcefulness. Obviously, although the music may remind one of Pärt’s Holy Minimalism or Tavener’s Byzantine music, the composer remains his own man throughout this long, but never boring piece. I enjoyed it enormously.

This performance is first rate, and could not be bettered. That Janet Youngdahl specialises in mediaeval and baroque music is clearly an asset in these settings which often hark back to old musical models. She sings beautifully throughout the fiendishly exposed vocal part, and with a remarkable legato. Järvi’s Absolute Ensemble plays immaculately, with obvious enjoyment and conviction.

This is a very fine disc that I enjoyed very much. I had never heard any of Viñao’s music before. I do not know what his other pieces may sound like but I would certainly welcome any opportunity to hear more of it. If you respond to the music of Pärt, Tavener, Vasks and Tüür, you should enjoy this splendidly produced release.

Hubert Culot








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