The Brabant Ensemble, conducted by Stephen Rice
The French composer Antoine de Fevin was born around 1470 probably at Arras, where his father was an Alderman (although one source describes Antoine as being of Orleans), and he seems to have died by 1512, possibly late in 1511. He is therefore of that generation of Franco-Flemish polyphonists which thrived between Josquin and Palestrina. Besides the two masses which give the disc its snappy title, the programme also includes two motets: the six-part Ascendens Christus in altum and two versions of the composer’s most popular motet Sancta trinitas, Fevin’s original in four parts and an expansion into six by his younger contemporary Arnold von Bruck.
Missa Ave Maria is based on the well-known motet by Josquin. Originally published in 1515, it appeared in an accessible modern edition put out by Annie Bank of Amsterdam in 1950 (from which your reviewer sang as a callow bass in the early 1960s). While it shares music (as at the end of the Credo) and stylistic traits (passages of paired voices) with the older composer (Fevin was noted during the sixteenth century as a follower of Josquin) there are other passages such as “qui tollis peccata mundi” in the third and final Agnus which seem to point towards the fuller polyphony and structural use of sequences in all parts developed in the music of later composers such as Gombert and particularly Clemens.
Attractive individual lines and strikingly successful sonorities, including an adroit use of homophony amongst the prevailing counterpoint, are to the fore in his motet Ascendens Christus where he exploits the possibilities of his chosen six-part scoring. This is a text that cries out to be illustrated musically, and Fevin himself rises to the occasion in depicting Christ as he was lifted up, favouring us with some of the Renaissance’s most exquisite writing for upper voices in three parts, complemented by a beautiful response from the lower voices. There had been doubt about the attribution to Antoine de Fevin of this motet but a source recently discovered has confirmed it. Although some passages sound modern for circa 1500, hence the justified uncertainty about the attribution to Fevin, there are also some mediaeval turns of phrase which peg the work to the period of Fevin’s lifetime. It is also important to mention the delightful settings of alleluia which occur in both sections of this radiantly beautiful bipartite work.
Fevin’s Sancta trinitas survives in no fewer than 41 sources, according to Grove including the abovementioned version expanded into six parts by Bruck. If Ascendens Christus sounds unlike the work of a follower of Josquin, this motet, with its prominent passages of paired voices, is most Josquinian, and is no harbinger of the innovations wrought by Gombert and his ilk a few decades later. The rather sparse initial passages give way to exultant and, within the limitations of writing for four parts, luxuriant polyphony at the final “speculum”. Bruck’s additional parts seem to gild this particular lily, though it is interesting to have the two settings juxtaposed.
A greater sense of continuity prevails in the Missa Salve sancta parens than in the Missa Ave Maria and this is perhaps it is because it is based on a plainchant rather than being tied to an entire motet, especially one by a composer from the previous generation, where structurally and stylistically there was more building upon individual episodes than, as with later composers, creating a more continuous narrative. The overall impression is still Josquinian but of a work that could only have been composed by a composer on the musical road progressing beyond Josquin. This is best illustrated in, again, the Agnus, where the austerely energetic duet which makes up Agnus II is followed by a positively luxuriant concluding Agnus III, where Fevin expressively exploits repetition and sequence in all four parts to impressive effect.
If the two masses have occasional longueurs among their many felicities, and Sancta trinitas – fine work that it is – comes across as one of those pieces which had more resonance for contemporaries than perhaps it has for posterity, nevertheless Ascendens Christus is simply stunning, and rewards repeated hearings. If it is indeed by Fevin, as seems proven, he has been insulted by having its attribution to him queried; that said, it is a work that is so striking even amongst his three other distinguished pieces on this disc, that the raising of quizzical eyebrows has perhaps been forgivable. In a venue with a slightly drier acoustic than on some of their recent recordings, the Brabant Ensemble make an excellent case for Fevin.