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Antoine de FÉVIN (ca.1470-1511/12)
Missa Ave Maria [33:19]
Ascendens Christus in altum [6:18]
Sancta Trinitas a 4 [3:20]
Sancta Trinitas a 6 [3:50]
Missa Salve sancta parens [31:42]
Chant: Salve sancta parens [0:42]
Brabant Ensemble/Stephen Rice
rec. 2018, All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, London
Texts and translations included
HYPERION CDA68265 [79:13]

Two half-hour masses by Antoine de Févin feature on this disc; one a ‘parody’ based on Josquin’s renowned motet Ave Maria….virgo serena (if listeners wish to ‘find their bearings’, the Brabant Ensemble’s account of this is thoughtfully offered as a free download on the Hyperion website), the other a ‘paraphrase’ based on the plainchant Salve sancta parens. In between we have a couple of Févin’s motets: Ascendens Christus in altum was until recently of doubtful provenance but new research has enabled its re-attribution, while Sancta Trinitas is given in two versions; in its original four-part guise, and in an elaborate six-part version with the embellishment of two additional voices supposedly added by Arnold von Bruck in the decades following Févin’s death. It all adds up to a vivid portrait of yet another largely forgotten French master, and we must be grateful to Stephen Rice and Hyperion for their continued advocacy of these ghostly presences and their quiet determination in restoring many fine, virtually unknown works to currency.

So who was Févin? According to Rice’s penetrating essay in the booklet, he was a minor noble, a churchman and, not least, a singer as well as a composer whose music seemingly flourished during his short life but is little known today. There are two very different recordings of his (or what is generally believed to be his) fine Requiem (by Organum under Pérès on AEON 1216 - review, and Doulce Memoire under Dadre on Zig Zag Territoires ZZT110510 - review), and three of his motets (including Sancta Trinitas) appear on David Skinner’s uniquely fascinating 2014 Gramophone Award-winning disc The Spy’s Choirbook (OBSIDIAN CD712 - review). Rice’s essay gently speculates on possible reasons for Févin’s comparative obscurity without reaching any firm conclusions. My view is that while these two Mass settings are refined and certainly accomplished, it is the Motets that should perhaps be better known.

In the Missa Ave Maria Févin skilfully extends and embellishes his raw materials by Josquin’s to build a pretty impressive four-part work, where pairs of voices are often contrasted and tested by long phrases. These lines are challenging and rather exposed but the security of the Brabant Ensemble voices in this repertoire is something of a given and there is an austere, gently glowing beauty in the writing for the high voices here, something immediately apparent in the ‘pair duet’ that opens the Kyrie. While the Missa is in no way a slavish imitation of Josquin’s style, Stephen Rice’s extremely detailed analysis identifies polyphonic similarities with its model, most notably in the Credo. The intensity of expression is expertly maintained by the Brabants throughout the Missa’s half hour plus span, while the recording is warm and full and pleasingly natural.

The essence of Févin’s joyfully transcendent Ascensiontide motet Ascendens Christus in altum is mellifluously carried by the Brabant Ensemble’s airy high voices who adopt an almost treble-like character in the frequent rising figures of its opening section which describes the Ascension; the lower voices come more to the fore towards its conclusion while the full choir is heard to telling effect in the final bars’ uplifting Alleluias. The four-part Sancta Trinitas is a measured, calm work, moving in its simplicity and elegant in its call and response contrasts between high and low voices. In fact I found it rather more affecting in this guise than in von Bruck’s impressively elaborated but comparatively fussy sounding six-part version. The clarity of the Brabant Ensemble’s diction, a consistent feature of this fine group, is well caught by the Hyperion engineers.

The Missa Salve sancta parens is preceded by the chant upon which it is based. The Mass itself seems notably richer in texture than the four-part Josquin parody, although the use of contrasting paired voices again emerges as a feature in this ‘paraphrase’. To my ears the ensemble as a whole sound more robust in this work, which, to my ears at least, projects a purer, more ancient atmosphere than the Missa Ave Maria, and seems sterner and less ornate. The highlight is the austere Agnus Dei at the conclusion of the Mass; its solemnity amplified by the tiered reduction in tempo across its three sections which communicates both consolation and repose. I found the recording here to be somewhat drier than in the other works and wondered if this had something to do with a perception that the lower voices seem to have more to do in this piece; whatever the reason it’s an impression that has persisted on repeated hearings.

While the voices of the Brabant Ensemble seem as refined, focused and secure as ever, I’m afraid I didn’t respond to the Févin masses as positively as I thought I might, having been considerably moved by his Requiem; for me they both emerge as rather generic late 15th/early 16th century fare, although both motets here hint at something a little more idiosyncratic, especially Ascendens Christus in altum. Regardless of my view, one can still only be humbled by Stephen Rice’s enthusiasm for this hidden repertoire, by his tenacity in unearthing and preparing it, and by his scholarship which is lightly worn in the essay accompanying this disc. It is a delight to read. I look forward to further discoveries, even though on this occasion Févin’s masses didn’t move me as much as examples by his contemporaries such as Moulu, Mouton or Jacquet of Mantua which have previously emerged from this source.

Richard Hanlon

Previous review: Gary Higginson

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