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Joseph A ESTORNINHO (b. 1959)
Requiem for the Innocents
Anna Johnstone (soprano); Makiko Hiratsuka (mezzo); David Clasen (tenor)
Voices of Little Venice, The St. Cecilia Choir/John Harmar-Smith
rec. Church of St Alban the Martyr, Brooke Street, London, 14-15 February 2004. DDD
HERALD HAVPCD295 [35:19]

To be honest, I first chose this disc to review for entirely personal reasons. The composerís name was familiar, so I checked. Sure enough, his uncle, Herculano, was a brilliant artist, my fatherís dear friend and godfather to my sister. Such tiny every day miracles ...

Private considerations aside, I listened to the disc on purely musical terms, and was delighted that I enjoyed it so much. This is music well worth listening to and could attract a wide audience.

The first sounds you hear are muted heartbeats, like those you hear on a scan of a baby in the womb. Simple, basic sounds, yet profound, for they are the "music of life". Then the music floods in, full and strong. Requiem aeternam is particularly lovely. It is built upon a single, but beautiful and quite distinctive melody. It turns round and round, evoking timelessness. The circular lines seem to float in eternity, very close to what it must be like for an unborn baby, floating in amniotic fluid, oblivious to the cares of the world. Soloists and choir blend harmoniously: the orchestration supporting them with great delicacy. The mood is moving and tender, yet the onward flowing figures progress the line with richness and depth.

The Dies Irae refers to the day of judgement for all souls. Here, however, is not fire and brimstone. There is too much genuine compassion in this music for that. The pure, pealing tones of the soprano in Tuba Mirum plead for Godís mercy, but the effect is not one of damnation: the soprano and choirís plaintive tones, reinforced by harp, sound angelic, as if the angels themselves, or the souls of the unborn, pray for forgiveness and healing. As the soprano sings in the Recordare, "You who absolved Mary/And heard the robber/Have given me hope, too." By vivid contrast the Confutatis is rapid fire action, rather like parts of Carmina Burana, minus the brutal connotations of the Orff piece. Yet again, the more powerful theme is the flowing Lacrimosa. Only God can judge, and he has compassion.

The composer didnít set out consciously to write a Requiem for the unborn: he started with other ideas, then reached a creative impasse. Only with meditation did he receive inspiration to write for the millions of infants lost before birth for whatever reason. This flash of insight illuminates the conventional Requiem texts, lifting the music towards a more personal, original realm. The unborn have no sins to be forgiven, so the mercy they implore is a message of comfort for those left behind. The Sanctus and Benedictus reiterate the circular melody of the introduction, this time with more definite direction. The sopranoís voice rises plaintively in Pie Jesu, alone and poignant, backed only by delicate writing for harp. When the other soloists, choir and instruments join in, it is as if the isolation is resolved, the pain healed. The music ends with the opening melody now part of a strongly flowing river of sound, the choral and instrumental writing creating a shimmering, uplifting image of Lux aeterna, "eternal light".

Perhaps it is the gentle pulse of this piece that makes it so moving; perhaps it is the delicate scoring or the melody. I suspect what makes it work is that it seems to express genuine emotion and spirituality. It is truly innocent, as the unborn are, and thereís no need for flashy effects or artifice. This recording would make an excellent gift for anyone mourning, whether for the unborn or those who have lived long lives. Yet its primary message is a celebration of simple goodness and compassion. As such I hope its appeal will go far beyond niche circles and reach the many who might find peace in its tender sensibility.

Incidentally, this is a piece well suited for performance, even at an amateur level. It doesnít require huge forces or extreme virtuosity, yet must be immensely satisfying to sing and play.

Anne Ozorio

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