The Hilliard Ensemble

Il Cor Tristo

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The Hilliard Ensemble, formed in the early 1970s, had announced its retirement when this album appeared, but one is hard pressed to detect any diminution in the originality of its programming or in its trademark vocal blend, structured as as to allow each singer to emerge as an individual. Three composers are represented on this album of madrigals: Bernardo Pisano, Jacques Arcadelt, and the contemporary British composer Roger Marsh. Pisano has not been much heard since the rediscovery of the Renaissance Italian madrigal repertory in the 1960s and 1970s, and the simple, melancholy pieces here, focused on the "sad heart" of the title, are worth a new look. They helped define the madrigal as a serious form in contrast to earlier vocal genres like the frottola, and they paved the way for the Flemish import Arcadelt to give the genre its classic foundation. Marsh sets passages of Dante's Divine Comedy in a vaguely madrigalesque style, with extended harmonies; his pieces are more declamatory than those of the Renaissance composers, and Dante is a long way from Petrarch (the prime author of madrigal texts). But somehow the music, which is mixed up in the program, all hangs together, and this may be due to the sheer force of the Hilliard Ensemble's personality. The stark, haunting sound environment forged by ECM's engineers, working in a small parish church in the Austrian Alps, may also have something to do with it.

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