Concert Reviews | CD Reviews | DVD Reviews | Opera | Early Music | News | Film | Art | Books | Kids

10.1.05

The Curious Scent of Early Musick



When I had a person ask me for music by the Suspicious Cheese Lords I raised my eyebrows in condescending disdain, suspecting some gimmicky group behind that title, as silly as the name itself. Even mention alongside Fretwork on NPR's Millennium of Music in their discussion of new recordings of Ludwig Senfl could not alter my snobbish prejudice much. That was until one of those Suspicious Cheese Lords stood in front of me, turning out to be an earnest, friendly, and odorless lover of serious early music and good food.


available at AmazonL.Senfl, Missa L'homme armé,
Suspicious Cheese Lords
SCL



available at AmazonCarpentras, Missa et al.,
Suspicious Cheese Lords
SCL



available at AmazonJ.Mouton, Sacred Music,
Suspicious Cheese Lords
SCL

There's a combination that has immediate appeal to me, given my steady balance between Gourmand and glutton, as well as fondly remembered days as a chorister, singing a cappella works from Gregorian chants to Josef Rheinberger and back. The particular Cheese Lord in front of me was the group's founder Clifton "Skip" West. Coercing fellow music and food lovers into singing The Lamentations of Jeremiah by promising a gourmet meal, the group had its ominous start. A probably wine-assisted mistranslation of Tallis's Suscipe Quæso Domine resulted in "The Suspicious Cheese Lords." The drunken stupor went, the name stuck.

The group, just over a dozen heads strong, is almost exclusively an amateur assembly, but you wouldn't know it if you heard them. I have had the pleasure to listen to their two recordings to date, the first one being "World Premiere Recording[s]" of Elzéar Genet (also [un]known as Carpentras—ca. 1470–1548). Of French origin, a Papal maestro and successful enough to publish his own edition of complete works, Carpentras proves to be a master of his time who wrote music that is interesting on merits of listening enjoyment alone. How his works had never been recorded before escapes me, but all the better for those Cheese Lords who have found a niche they most satisfactorily filled.

If Carpentras will be enjoyable to anyone who likes Tallis and Palestrina, the same cannot be said without reservations about Ludwig Senfl. Even though Robert Aubry Davis, host of NPR's Millennium of Music, almost lost his breath in his orgiastic and consistently mispronounced praise of Senfl as one of the greatest super-duper composers of all time—and the best thing to come out of Switzerland since semi-modern democracy and cheese—this ~1486–1543 court composer of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I and Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria in Munich has his limitations to the modern ear.

But the Suspicious Cheese Lords chose him to be the composer of their second recording for a reason. Not only because I am partial to all things Bavarian and CDs with only one composer, it turns out to be a good choice. It is also another "World Premier Recording," namely of the Missa L'homme armé, and further includes a Te Deum as well as three other sacred pieces. The fact that it is his sacred music that's recorded here, and not his secular, is key. For all the importance of Senfl and his music, his secular works (as recorded on the praise-gathering Fretwork release Im Maien—Harmonia Mundi) are a delight only to the hardest core of early music lovers. To all other ears it is an experience that might delight for a few minutes but soon becomes dreadfully tiresome. Good thing then that the works on the Cheese Lords' disc are a far cry from the dull polyphony, in part because the primitive instruments (lute, recorders, percussion, reminding one of the campiest of medieval movie scenes) are thankfully missing. The Te Deum is the juiciest work on the disc, while the Mass has its more and less accessible parts. I find the musical offering of the Carpentras CD even more compelling, but in terms of quality, presentation, and audiophile sound (both discs were recorded in the Franciscan Monastery in Washington, D.C., which has just the right amount of reverberation, beautifully caught by recording engineer Mark Huffman), it is every bit as outstanding and professional as its predecessor. Either discs will make friends of early music (never mind Renaissance enthusiasts) salivate for more.

Ionarts review of a Suspicious Cheese Lords concert here.
(For more information about the Suspicious Cheese Lords check out their Web site. Their recordings are available at Tower Records, at 2000 Pennsylvania Avenue NW.)