In conjunction with this vocal quartet’s 40th anniversary and heading into the final year of their existence (they are retiring after 2014) comes this mix of old and new. Though mostly known for performances of early music repertoire, the Hilliards have always supported modern music as well — their first concert, on December 11, 1973, paired William Byrd with then-still-living Benjamin Britten. Here they mix Il Cor Tristo — a setting of cantos 32 and 33 from Dante’s Inferno — by Roger Marsh (b. 1949) with six Italian madrigals by Bernardo Pisano (1490-1548), possibly the earliest practitioner of the form, and three by his more well-known successor Jacques Arcadelt (c.1507-68), both setting poems by Petrarch.
Il Cor Tristo is translated here as The Misery of the Heart, and the Petrarch poems set by Pisano and Arcadelt accordingly dwell on the plaints of the lovelorn. Though passionate, they also proceed with a certain dignity; these date from before the wild harmonies of Gesualdo and later madrigalists. The musical effects hew closely to the words being set, a trait they have in common with Marsh’s work, here heard with its three movements spread among the madrigals. The melodicism of the Renaissance pieces is largely forgone by Marsh, who instead adds color through modern harmonies while the words are nearly chanted in excitedly dramatic fashion. The contrast of Marsh’s style with that of the madrigalists’ is always clear, and spreading out his less tuneful work amid the more mellifluous madrigals effectively conceals the dryness of Marsh’s approach and makes sure we’re never too far away from variety. Highly recommended to madrigal fans and anyone who values a cappella choral work.