"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.
See also previous review by Rob Barnett