Belonging to the generation of Franco-Flemish polyphonists that include Josquin, Antoine de Févin (c.1470 – 1511/1512) was a singer in the service of Louis XII and chef de chœur at the Chapelle du Roi. This Hyperion recording from The Brabant Ensemble serves up two of Févin’s ten surviving Masses, one a parody of Josquin, the other inspired from Gregorian chant.
Whatever their provenance, each provides plenty of contrasting material in the frequent divergence from four parts to extended passages for three or two voices. Generally, the singing is accomplished, occasionally ardent, but rarely does it glow with a rapture that invites repeated listening. While there is clear differentiation of tonal weight and tempo, there is not always sufficient life and colour in the line, notwithstanding smooth expression; sometimes energy is injected into Févin’s florid writing, yet there can be blandness, the music trudging rather than dancing, and colouring, particularly from lower voices, is a uniform grey. Even knowing that passages from a Josquin Motet are reassembled in Missa Ave Maria, it’s curious to hear the triple time ‘Osanna I’ sung with such leaden emphasis. On the credit side there is a superb rendition of ‘Agnus Dei II’ in which soprano and alto voices wheel around like two birds in flight, their flawless intonation and impeccable musicianship a delight. And there is much to enjoy from portions of the Missa Salve sancta parens – forward momentum and earthy singing contrasting with welcome restraint, intimacy, and refinement.
There are two versions of Févin’s admirable Sancta Trinitas, scored for four then six voices, the latter augmented by the composer’s younger contemporary Arnold von Bruck, its flowing lines building towards a majestic evocation of the Holy Trinity and sung with relish. By far the most impressive work is Ascendens Christus in altum in which The Brabant Ensemble demonstrably moves up a gear in response to its richer sonorities and shapely phrases with a gratifying lightness of touch and elasticity.
This account alone is an excellent reason to look out for Févin, and this generous forty-two-track release is supplied with Stephen Rice’s comprehensive booklet note and texts and translations.