Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Music Webmaster
Len Mullenger:

ILLUMINA Unaccompanied choral works by W H Harris, Rautavaara, Rachmaninov, Byrd, Hildegard of Bingen, Tallis, Rutter, Charles Wood, Whyte, Holst, Desprez, Grechaninov, Tchaikovsky, Palestrina, Ligeti.  Choir of Clare College/Timothy Brown   COLLEGIUM RECORDS COLCD 125 [76.08]
Save around 22% with
Amazon UK



"Illumina" is a compilation of 18 pieces of a capella chants, canticles, motets and anthems on the theme of Light sung by the choir of Clare College Cambridge and recorded in the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral. As mentioned in John Rutter's accompanying notes, the dates of composition range from Gregorian chant to the late 20th century. In fact they form two distict historical groups: Mediaeval/Renaissance and late19th/20th century. No music between Palestrina and Tchaikowsky is represented - a yawning gap of 300 years. Admittedly, the practice of a capella singing went into decline in western Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries with organ or orchestral accompaniment becoming the norm; however it would have been valuable to have had included some eastern Orthodox liturgical music (wherein instruments were, and still are, prohibited) from this period.

The early group consists entirely of Latin texts of the Catholic Church, whilst the modern group is more wide-ranging including items which are Russian Orthodox (Tchaikowsky, Grechaninov, Rachmaninov) and Anglican (Wood, Holst, Harris and Rutter). In line with the general theme, the pieces include two settings of Christe qui lux es, from the office of Compline, four of Nunc dimittis, and four of Hail Gladdening Light. The works are not presented in historical sequence - or indeed any discernable pattern. However the facility of modern CD players, which allows the individual listener to mix-and-match to suit individual taste, comes to the rescue. I found that playing the pieces in chronological was highly satisfying.

The early works chart a seamless evolution of church music from Greorian plainchant, through the first stirrings of polyphony in 12th century Hildegard's O coruscans lux stellarum, to the 16th century gloriesof Tallis, Byrd, and Palestrina. The more recent set of works illustrates how much diversity has arisen in the last 400 years and reveals the similarities and differences between the Orthodox and Anglican traditions.

The most remarkable piece is the setting of Lux aeterna by the Hungarian composer Gyorgi Ligeti written in 1966. Whilst the words are those in the Latin Requiem Mass, the music may be perceived as extending way beyond the confines of the Catholic liturgy to become an almost abstract portrayal of Eternal Light on an astronomical scale, which is at once timeless, lucid and amorphous. Ligeti's score includes the direction "as if from afar"; certainly this music transports the listener to contemplate the light of inter-galactic space and does so most powerfully. No doubt it was this quality that prompted Stanley Kubrick to incorporate this piece into the soundtrack of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and it could well have been a source of inspiration for the idiosyncratic sounds of Tangerine Dream's early albums just a few years later.

The performance quality of Clare College Choir is superb throughout. The intonation and clarity of diction are well nigh perfection. They are a mixed choir of 24 voices, augmented to 32 for the purposes of this recording, thus providing enough voices for each part. Whist most of the pieces are 4-part SATB, several are 8-part and the Legeti is no less than 16-part. I can well imagine that some graduate member's voices were necessary to cope with the deep contra-bass notes demanded by Rachmaninov in his setting of Nyinye otpushchyeshi (Nunc dimittis).

This disc is a first-rate contribution to unaccompanied choral singing at its best and can be highly recommended.


Humphrey Smith

See also previous review by Rob Barnett


Humphrey Smith

Reviews from previous months

Reviews carry sales links but you can also purchase from:

Return to Index