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Jacob Obrecht & Antoine de Févin: Masses & motets

[I] Jacob OBRECHT (1457/58 - 1505): "Missa Grecorum & motets"
The Brabant Ensemble
Dir: Stephen Rice
rec: Jan 26 - 28, 2017, London, All Saints' Church, East Finchley
Hyperion - CDA68216 (© 2018) (74'13")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics: translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Agnus Dei a 4 (attr); Cuius sacrata viscera a 4; Mater Patris a 5; Missa Grecorum a 4; O beate Basili a 4; Salve Regina a 6

Helen Ashby, Kate Ashby, Eloise Irving, Bethany Partridge, soprano; Emma Ashby, Sarah Coatsworth, Claire Eadington, Rebekah Jones, contralto; Alastair Carey, David Condry, Richard Eteson, Christopher O'Gorman, tenor; Paul Charrier, David Stuart, bass

[II] Antoine DE FÉVIN (c1470 - 1511/12): "Missa Ave Maria & Salve sancta parens"
The Brabant Ensemble
Dir: Stephen Rice
rec: Jan 29 - 31, 2018, London, All Saints' Church, East Finchley
Hyperion - CDA68265 (© 2018) (79'13")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Antoine DE FÉVIN: Ascendens Christus in altum a 6; Missa Ave Maria a 4; Missa Salve sancta parens a 4; Sancta Trinitas a 4; Sancta Trinitas a 4 (arr a 6 by Arnold VON BRUCK, ?1500-1554); plainchant: Salve sancta parens

Helen Ashby, Kate Ashby, Emma Huggett, Eloise Irving, Rebecca Lea, soprano; Emma Ashby, Claire Eadington, contralto; Paul Bentley-Angell, David Condry, Christopher O'Gorman, tenor; Paul Charrier, David Stuart, bass

Jacob Obrecht is one of the great names of the Renaissance period. He was one of the main representatives of the Franco-Flemish school around 1500. His oeuvre is not that large, but he was one of the most prolific composers of mass cycles: the number of extant masses of established authenticity is counted at 30, and five further masses could be well from his pen too. Most of his works have been recorded, but the discography put together by Todd McComb indicates that quite a number of recordings are of such a date that they may not be available anymore. It is probably telling that the present disc is the first entirely devoted to Obrecht that has come my way in my capacity as a reviewer. And whereas several of his masses have never been recorded, some are available in quite a number of performances. The disc of The Brabant Ensemble is of great importance as it includes two masses which are new to the catalogue.

Obrecht was born in Ghent, where his father was in the service of the town as a trumpeter. Jacob may also have been trained as such, but we know nothing about his musical education for certain. The first documentary evidence of Obrecht's occupation of a musical position dates from 1480 to 1484, when he was choirmaster in Bergen op Zoom (today in the Dutch province of North Brabant). He then moved to Cambrai to take the position of master of the choirboys at the cathedral. That was only an intermezzo, because the next year he was appointed succentor at St Donatian in Bruges. The next station was Antwerp, where in 1492 he took up the post of choirmaster at the church of Our Lady. As one can see, Obrecht often moved from one town to the other, and that continued until the end of his life. In 1497 he returned to Bergen op Zoom, then moved to Bruges again, but in 1501 he was in Antwerp for the second time. Unlike many of his colleagues, he never went to Italy. Until 1504, that is: in that year he entered the service of Duke Ercole d'Este in Ferrara. It didn't bring him any luck: his employer died in January 1505, and in June or July of that same year Obrecht himself died of the plague.

The heart of the recording of The Brabant Ensemble is the Missa Grecorum. As most masses of the time, it is based on pre-existing music, but to date it has neither been possible to identify what music Obrecht may have used nor to discover where the Mass's name comes from. The cantus firmus may be of secular origin, but it has also been suggested that it refers to the habit of reading the Epistel and Gospel in Greek during Eastertide. The fact that the Mass quotes the Easter sequence Victimae paschali laudes could point in this direction. If this is the case, the Mass could be written for Eastertide. In masses, the cantus firmus is mostly treated in such ways that the listener hardly recognizes it. In this Mass, it is sung in its original form and complete in the Agnus Dei. Without saying that this Mass includes text expression, some episodes show a close connection between text and music, for instance in the Credo, with rising figures on "Et ascendit". Also notable is the way Obrecht has set the words "Glorificamus te" in the Gloria.

Obrecht's extant oeuvre includes three settings of the Marian antiphon Salve Regina, for three, four and six voices respectively. Here we hear the latter, which has an alternatim texture. Notable is that the three upper voices are for sopranos. Mater Patris is for five voices, but as one of the voices is missing, this part had to be reconstructed. This is a hymn to the Blessed Virgin Mary; the tenor sings a different text: "Sancta Dei genitrix" (Holy begetter of God, ever-virgin Mary, hear our prayers humbly poured out before you). O beate Basili includes even three different texts, all taken from the Office for the Feast of St Basil. In the first section the alto and tenor sing the text "O beate pater Basili" (Blessed father Basil, intercede with the good Lord Jesus on behalf of our unworthiness), which is then sung by the entire ensemble in the second section. In the third the bass has its own text: "Invisit sanctus sanctum Basilium Effrem" (Saint Ephrem saw Saint Basil, whom he found when in a sacred place). Cuius sacrata viscera is a very short piece (here 1'39"); it is a hymn for the Feast of the Visitation, which Obrecht set twice, the other setting being for three voices. The disc ends with a separate Agnus Dei, which has been preserved anonymously in the so-called 'Wroclaw Codex'. Rob Wegman, a specialist in Renaissance polyphony, attributes it to Obrecht.

The second disc is devoted to another of Josquin's contemporaries, Antoine de Févin, one of two brothers who were active as composers; Robert was his younger brother. Not that much is known about him for certain; he was probably born in Arras, was a priest and worked as a singer in the service of Louis XII of France; he died in Blois. His colleague at court, Jean Mouton, composed a lament at the occasion of Févin's death.

The theorist Glarean described Févin as a follower of Josquin. The Missa Ave Maria, which opens the programme, attests to that, as it is based on Josquin's motet, which was then one of his most famous works and is still his most frequently-performed composition. At several moments Josquin's motet is clearly recognizable, for instance at the end of the Credo. Here the closing phrase of the motet is quoted almost literally, and the "Amen" is even identical. After an extensive analysis of this mass and the way Févin makes use of Josquin's motet, Stephen Rice concludes: "[This] Mass is not only based upon one of the late fifteenth century's finest and most recognizable motets, but recreates its music in a highly original, ingenious, and expressive way".

The Missa Salva sancta parens is based on plainchant: an introit for Masses for the Blessed Virgin Mary. This Mass is dominated by duets, and often the material of a duet by two of the voices is then immediately imitated by two other voices. That is the case, for instance, at the opening of the Mass: a phrase of tenor and bassus is repeated by superius and altus. Févin also makes use of a rhetorical device: the repeat of a phrase with the aim of emphasizing it. Rice sees Févin as an intermediary between the time when contrasts within a Mass setting, for instance between passages for the full ensemble and episodes for reduced forces, are mainly driven by the aim of creating variety, and the time of Lassus, when composers started to construct a closer connection between text and music for expressive reasons.

Ascendens Christus in altum is a motet for Ascensiontide in two parts, which clearly reflects the joy about Christ's accession to the throne, for instance in the two jubilant settings of the closing "Amen". Sancta Trinitas is an antiphon for Trinity Sunday. Févin's setting was one of his most popular pieces, and appears in more than forty sources. Again, duets play a major role here; the opening is homophonic, and the final phrase is again repeated. The arrangement of this piece by Arnold von Bruck attests to this motet's popularity. He adds two parts, but as one of them usually is above the superius of Févin's motet, the character of the original changes considerably. It includes some very high notes.

These don't come off entirely free of tension in The Brabant Ensemble's performance, but overall these are very fine and convicing interpretations. The quality of the voices is beyond doubt; the ensemble includes several singers whom we also know from stile antico. The individual qualities of the singers come to the fore in the many duets and other passages for reduced forces. The question how many singers are needed in such repertoire will probably never be solved. In particular if women are used for both the superius and the altus parts, a slighty smaller ensemble may be preferable. The sound is not always very transparent. One also wonders whether the music by Obrecht and by Févin should sound almost identical. There seems to be a real need for more differentiation. That also concerns the pronunciation of Latin. It is rather ironical that Rice, in the liner-notes to the Févin disc, observes that "Févin's underlay is often clearly constructed with a French style of pronunciation in mind, in which syllables are not so heavily accented (...)", and then sticks to the traditional Italian pronunciation. I find this incomprehensible.

That said, I strongly recommend these discs to any lover of renaissance polyphony, because of the general quality of the performances, and especially the fact that they are substantial additions to the discography.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

The Brabant Ensemble

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