Sacred Polyphony from Antoine de Févin

There I was, driving through the streets of Port Townsend, dodging the dashing deer, when out of the blue, strains of Palestrina came floating by. Giving thanks to CBC Radio, which we can receive in the Pacific Northwest, I noticed immediately how my internal space had become far more peaceful after just a few bars of Palestrina's polyphonic writing for multiple voices. It was at that minute that I realized that I missed listening to sacred vocal music of the Renaissance, and that it was high time that more of it made its way on to the

French composer Antoine de Févin (ca 1470–1511/12) may not have the cachet of earlier Franco-Flemish composers such as Johannes Ockeghem ((ca 1410-1497) and Josquin des Prez (c.1450/55–1521), or his French contemporaries Antoine Brumel ((ca1460–1512/1513) and Clement Janequin (1485-1558), but he was, according to conductor Stephen Rice, one of the most accomplished and widely circulated creators of sacred music in France and Europe around 1500. With very few entire recordings devoted to Févin's music, there is no better way to make his acquaintance than the latest offering from Rice and The Brabant Ensemble, Antoine de Févin: Missa Ave Maria & Salve sancta parens (Hyperion CDA68265).

Févin was a pioneer in the technique of "parody" or "imitation" polyphonic Mass settings. Among his most notable creations in this genre is the 33-minute Missa Ave Maria, whose short movements are based on Josquin's well-known six-minute motet, Ave Maria . . . virgo serena. Although only the hi-rez download of the recording contains Josquin's motet as a bonus—there was no room on the packed CD—the contrast between the two is marked. To these ears and spirit, Josquin's seems a little holier—more at rest, and more content to allow meaning to flow in the space between notes—while Févin seems concerned with filling every bit of space with moving voices. But the way those voices move—the way a chorus of multiple voices can suddenly diverge into a duet between soprano and alto or tenor and bass, and the way everything weaves together in a common sense of belief and purpose—is as fascinating as it is beautiful.

Beauty also seems a byword for the 20-year old Brabant Ensemble. Recorded in All Saints' Church, East Finchley, London near the start of 2018, the 12-voice ensemble sounds ideally smooth and well-balanced. The sopranos, whose high range exhibits a luminous purity characteristic of English Renaissance vocal ensembles, and whose basses plumb the depths without sounding as though Hades has any chance of overwhelming God's kingdom, blend perfectly with the other voices. Thanks to recording engineer David Hinitt, the balance between vocal clarity and acoustic reverberation is near-ideal.

Rice describes in great detail the ways in which Févin takes his clue from Josquin's writing while remaining true to his own voice. That voice speaks on its own in the six-minute Ascendens Christus in altum, two versions of Sancta Trinitas, and the 32-minute Missa Salve sancta parens. The latter derives from the plainchant, Salve sancta parens, which is sung for the Masses for the Blessed Virgin Mary. 42-seconds of that plainchant, sung by bass David Stuart, precedes the Mass.

Please check back for more reviews of early music in the coming weeks and months. Meanwhile, in the absence of a YouTube video of The Brabant singing his music—Hyperion probably hasn't had time since the recording's release to post one—please enjoy the audio clips on Hyperion's site, or enjoy Doulce Mémoire singing his Messe de Requiem.

volvic's picture

And absolutely love it, this one too will most definitely be purchased.

Long-time listener's picture

Thanks for this review. I haven't heard this composer's music yet.

Another early or Renaissance period composer you might consider covering in reviews, or that might be of interest to readers, would be the music of Orlando (or Rolando) de Lassus, in any of several recordings by Philippe Herreweghe on Harmonia Mundi.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Thank you. However, new recordings are my focus. In this age of supposed slow-down, I still get a ton of them. If it speaks to me, I hope to review Jordi Savall's new recording soon.

Long-time listener's picture

I'd be interested to know what that would be, being a pretty big fan of Savall's. His Monteverdi Vespers remains my favorite even several decades later.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

J-F. Rebel & G. Ph. Telemann: Terpsichore, Apothéose de la Danse baroque was released Nov. 28
Ibn Battuta: The Traveler of Islam 1304-1377 comes on January 11.

What I will review remains to be seen. :-)

monetschemist's picture

Jason, first of all thanks for the nice shout-out to CBC. We Canucks appreciate NPR and PBS and it's always great to hear our neighbours to the south appreciating the CBC.

Second, YES!!! more Renaissance polyphony in Stereophile, thank you thank you!

Third, thanks for this recommendation I'm going to find it now.

My latest acquisition - Gimell CDGIM009 and CDGIM0050 - the Tallis Scholars binging on Josquin.

And 2018 in Vancouver has been a great treat with Early Music Vancouver having invited Vox Luminus and Diabolus in Musica, and this month Bach Collegium Japan (ok a bit far afield from Renaissance Polyphony but really? BCJ in Vancouver? Wow). Now if we can only convince them to invite Jordí Savall....

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Someday I have to get up there for a concert. A little easier to go to Seattle, I must admit. Glad to hear so many great things are happening. You also have lieder recitals, which are virtually nil in Seattle.

Charles E Flynn's picture

donlin's picture

Another great recording purchased based on your recommendation. Absolutely love it.