Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Il Cor Tristo - Hilliard Ensemble

Il Cor Tristo - The Hilliard Ensemble - ECM NEW SERIES 2346 4810637
Having announced their retirement at the end of next year, the Hilliard Ensemble will be watched keenly and their remaining discs anticipated. This new one on the ECM label, Il Cor Tristo combines two of the Renaissance's greatest poets, Petrarch and Dante. Poems from Francesco Petrarca's Il Canzoniere (first published in 1470) in settings by two Renaissance composers Bernardo Pisano (1490 - 1548) and Jacques Arcadelt (1507 - 1568) are interleaved with settings of Dante Alighieri (from La Divina Commedia) by the contemporary composer Roger Marsh who is professor of music at York University.

Marsh's Il Cor Tristo is in three parts, each setting parts of Ugolino's monologue from Cantos 32 and 33 of La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy). The work was written in 2008 specifically for the Hilliard Ensemble. Each part of Marsh's piece is preceded by three of the Renaissance madrigals in a combination which is surprising but which works very well.


Bernado Pisano is something of a pioneer in that he was responsible for bringing a new gravity to Italian polyphonic song. He was the first musician to be honoured with a single-composer volume of secular songs in print, published by Ottaviano Petrucci in 1520. Pisano's settings are attractive and appealing, with the polyphonic moments providing some lovely colour to the pieces, and but the text is always clear. The Hilliard Ensemble perform six of the seven songs from Petrucci's collection which had texts by Petrarch.

By contrast Jacques Arcadelt's madrigals are far more sophisticated things, the text here is paramount and there is a brilliant clarity to them. Arcadelt wrote around two dozen madrigals setting Petrarch, and the Hilliard Ensemble sing three of them, bringing out the smoothness of the harmony and the vivid way that Arcadelt articulates the text. Their experience in this repertoire shows and the results are impressively engrossing, even for someone who can't read Italian without a crib.

Marsh's piece is actually rather more homophonic. Marsh writes tonally and takes great care to ensure that Dante's words are paramount, much of it is performed in chanted recitative. He emphasises the drama of the narrative, using spoken sections and more advanced techniques. The result is rather intense and very appealing, certainly giving Dante's text primacy and helping to articulate it. These are a world away from the madrigals, texture here is less important than text and drama. Marsh brings out the sheer monumentality and drama in Dante's work. There is a wonderful theatricality to the work and the Hilliard's performance brings this out to the full.

I rather felt that, at this stage in their career, Marsh's Il Cor Tristo suited the ensemble rather more than the Renaissance madrigals. In the earlier pieces I was very aware of their stylised way with the music, notably David James's counter-tenor. The group are highly expressive, but highly distinctive as well. Whereas the Renaissance pieces demand tonal purity and seem to stretch the group, Marsh has written a work which plays to their strengths.  (You can hear an excerpt of the Hilliard Ensemble singing Il Cor Tristo on Roger Marsh's website)

The disc includes full texts, an informative article about the music plus a note by Marsh on the creation of Il Cor Tristo.

This is a fascinating disc, with some lovely moments, but I realise that I have sounded less than enthusiastic. The disc will surely appeal to lovers of the Hilliard Ensemble's particular and intelligent approach to this music, but others should perhaps try before they buy.

The group's 40th anniversary tour starts in December 2013 at the Spitalfields Festival with a concert on 11 December which will include a new Roger Marsh piece. See the Spitalfields Music website for details.

Bernardo Pisano (1490 - 1548) - Or vedi, Amore [2.21]
Bernardo Pisano (1490 - 1548) - Nova angeletta [2.09]
Bernardo Pisano (1490 - 1548) - Chiare, fesche et dolci acque [2.48]
Roger Marsh (born 1949) - Il Cor Tristo - 1 [5.56]
Jacques Arcadelt (1507 - 1568) - Solo e pensoso [3.20]
Jacques Arcadelt (1507 - 1568) - L'aere gravato [2.42]
Jacques Arcadelt (1507 - 1568) - Turto'l di piano [3.46] 
Roger Marsh (born 1949) - Il Cor Tristo - 2 [5.56]
Bernardo Pisano (1490 - 1548) - Si e debile il filo [3.23]
Bernardo Pisano (1490 - 1548) - Ne la stagion [4.50]
Bernardo Pisano (1490 - 1548) - Che debb'io far? [4.10]
Roger Marsh (born 1949) - Il Cor Tristo -3 [5.56]
The Hilliard Ensemble (David James, Rogers Covey Crump, Steven Harrold, Gordon Jones)

Recorded November 2013 Probstei St Gerold
ECM NEW SERIES 481 0637 1CD [53.10]

Il Cor Tristo - Pisano, Arcadelt, Marsh; The Hilliard Ensemble
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 04 2013
Rating: 4.0

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