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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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