The Hilliard Ensemble
Il Cor Tristo
David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
Steven Harrold tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Recorded November 2012, Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Throughout a four decades-long career, the Hilliard Ensemble has astonished with a vocal style so fluid yet so clearly textured that sometimes the inhales tell as much of the story as the exhales. There is, in no uncertain terms, something topographic about the Hilliards’ singing, which arcs and swivels like the mapmaker’s oldest instruments. Tenors Rogers Covey-Crump and Steven Harrold are particularly noteworthy as a core thread of the present recording, although it is baritone Gordon Jones who anchors Roger Marsh’s settings of Cantos 32 and 33 from Dante Alighieri’s Inferno with the added weight of guttural, chant-like singing. Written for the ensemble in 2008, Marsh’s title work (meaning “Misery of the heart”) is a masterful addition to the repertoire. Although it shares certain affinities with the rest of the program, one may ignore any marketing attempts to characterize its juxtaposition with the Renaissance works featured herein works as “seamless.” It is, rather fascinatingly, distinct for its organic irregularities. With a more stream-of-consciousness, recitational style, Marsh calls upon the voices to dig into Dante as if he were the very soil, until the Florentine poet’s underworld widens before us, where heads of betrayers lodged a frozen lake become tripping stones to his narrative other. Marsh’s remarkably astute writing and the Hilliards’ embodied diction make for a dramatic experience. In an explanatory liner note, the composer bids the listener to listen to these Cantos not merely for their harmony, but also for their poetry. Consequently, this release begs ownership of a physical copy. How else, then, might one appreciate Dante’s disturbing conversation of the disembodied, or the delicacy with which he and those tuneful tenors have “passed onward” into the next circle?
Francesco Petrarca, otherwise known as Petrarch, is the textual subject of interest for Bernardo Pisano (1490-1548) and Jacques Arcadelt (c. 1507-1568). The poems now focus on a rather different misery of the heart, calling on the powers that be more often to extinguish its yearnings than to chase them away by fire. Pisano’s settings are headlong excursions. Between the swift resolutions of Or vedi, Amor (Now you see, Love) and the ponderous circularities of Che debb’io far? (What must I do?), the Hilliards lead a deluge of probing sentiments. The freshness of their performance enhances Pisano’s sly arranging, which runs the gamut from lively and swinging to flowing and evenhanded. And the singers’ dynamic mastery is nowhere so beautifully tested than in Ne la stagion (At the moment), a trio of self-deprecating stanzas on the art of solitude.
Solitude further reigns over Arcadelt’s own settings, which yield some of the album’s fairest skies. The robustness of Solo e pensoso (Alone and thoughtful) sits self-interestedly on the shore of L’aere gravato (The heavy air). The latter is an ideal vehicle for David James, whose voice brings tidings of pulchritude wherever it may tread. Tutto ’l dí piango (All day I weep) likewise spotlights the countertenor and boasts some of the most pristine ensemble singing of the Hillards’ ECM tenure. And like Petrarch, who in that last verse is grieved by the failings of others more than his own, they seem to embrace the listener as an extension of their giving selves, trading fortune for a candle doused by the breath of a turning face.
(To hear samples of Il Cor Tristo, click here.)