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Antoine de FÉVIN (c.1470-1511/1512)
Missa Ave Maria [33:19]
Ascendens Christus in altum [6:18]
Sancta Trinitas a 4 [3:20]
Sancta Trinitas a 6 (parts added by Arnold von Bruck (?1500-1554)) [3:50]
Missa Salve Sancta parens [31:42]
The Brabant Ensemble/Stephen Rice
rec. 2018, All Saints' Church, East Finchley, London
HYPERION CDA68265 [79:13]

Antoine de Févin, most likely born in Arras in Northern France, is not a household name even amongst aficionados of early Renaissance music. Indeed it is a struggle to find his music on CD at all. His memorable motet Vulnerasti cor meum was recorded by the ‘Orchestra of the Renaissance’ (Glossa GCD 921403) along with Morales’s parody mass on the motet. I have a recording of his Requiem by the Ensemble Organum (ćon/Outhere AECD 1216, now available as a download) but it could well be by the rather shadowy Anthonius Divitis. So, no matter how you look at it, this recording by a fine choir is most welcome.

Févin was especially important in the technique of the parody mass represented here by the Missa Ave Maria, based on Josquin’s famous motet by the same name, but he could also compose to a cantus firmus, as the Missa Salve sancta parens. We are also treated to two of Févin’s fourteen surviving motets on this very well filled recording. The Josquin motet can be heard on-line if needs be.

I have waxed lyrical about the Brabant Ensemble on these pages before. Their last recording, which I reviewed in February – they are astonishingly prolific – was a fine experience (Obrecht’s Missa Grecorum on Hyperion 68216). One of my favourites among their CDs is a Jean Mouton disc (Hyperion 67933). I have simply relished the sound they make, mature but fresh, clear but intense, young but full of experience and with phrases so thoughtfully shaped. The personnel have, of course, slightly changed over the last decade, although many names keep recurring but I am not so spellbound this time. Although the female voices are still impressive, I have found the male voices to be less focused, even a little rough sometimes, especially in the Missa Salve Sancta parens.

In the past, the Brabant Ensemble have recorded at St. Michael’s Summertown in Oxford, a popular recording venue with its fine acoustic. For this disc and for the Obrecht they have moved to All Saints, East Finchley, which I have always felt to be more suitable for a smaller ensemble; it seems to lack space for the voices to resonate, and the sound is also a little brittle. Well, you might think me a bit picky, so I will move on.

The motet Ascendens Christus in alium is a wonderfully happy work, as indeed it should be, and it seems to speak in an accent more typical of mid-16th Century. The original Sancta Trinitas motet likewise is for four voices with several warm homophonic passages. About forty versions of it survive in various manuscripts. The 6-part version that follows adds of course to the complexity and richness. Is by Bruges-born composer Arnold von Bruck who may have known de Févin personally.

The Ascension motet demonstrates a technique also found in sections of the masses: setting the text so as sections are often performed by just two voices, then later on answered by two contrasting ones. Stephen Rice writes: “In both mass settings the ‘pleni’ in the Sanctus is so treated”. Févin also enjoys well placed triple time sections. For instance, the Salve sancta parens mass ends with such a passage.

I have ended up taking the following view: what with the textbook contrasts of texture, the well-balanced sections and the clever use of canon, especially in the Missa Ave Maria (because the Josquin original is in canon for much of its course), Févin is technically a very fine composer but not a consistently inspired one. In many ways that does not necessarily matter, as it is vital that music like this be given an opportunity to speak to us after all these years.

It is a great joy and a help, not least no doubt for students, that there are forty-two tracks on this CD. The Missa Ave Maria has twenty and the other mass seventeen. This is coupled with Stephen Rice’s amazingly detailed notes in which, as a consequence, he can easily illustrate his points by referring to a specific section of the mass via a track number and a timing point. He can spread his enthusiasm for this composer generously.

So, rare music, well worth exploring despite my caveats. You may not see its like again.

Gary Higginson

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