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Swiss Cheese Lords

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Ludwig Senfl, Missa L'homme armé, Te Deum, Suspicious Cheese Lords
The Suspicious Cheese Lords are an Ionarts favorite, although some connections, professional and otherwise, may bring our objectivity into question. The group's goal, however, is near and dear to my heart: to revive Renaissance polyphony as a living art and as it was originally performed, by a small all-male vocal ensemble. That they do so both in concert and in the context of the liturgy is even more to their credit. It is as if few people in the world had ever seen or heard of Renaissance sacred art and someone suddenly unearthed Michelangelo. A few years ago, the Lords took up the cause of Swiss composer Ludwig Senfl (c. 1486-1543), the chorister in Maximilian I's Hofkapelle who became assistant to Heinrich Isaac and then succeeded him as Kapellmeister.

Senfl's music is not exactly unknown, but this release entirely dedicated to his polyphony is rare enough. According to Renaissance scholar Honey Meconi, who wrote the liner notes, all five works on this CD were recorded here for the first time. As with more than a few Renaissance composers, some of Senfl's music has not even been transcribed into modern editions yet. The discoveries include Senfl's contribution to the bewildering array of polyphonic Mass ordinaries based on the tune L'homme armé, this one in four voices and combining not only the famous secular song but also plainchant melodies. Adding up to approximately the same amount of time as the Mass setting are Senfl's settings of two crucial liturgical texts, the Te Deum (the festal and ancient melody sung at the end of solemn Vigils and on other solemn occasions, heard here in alternation with Senfl's polyphony) and Miserere mei deus (the first of David's penitential psalms, proper to this coming Sunday, the first Sunday of Lent, and other feasts).

From Psalm 50 (51):

Amplius lava me ab iniquitate mea
    et a peccato meo munda me.
Quoniam iniquitatem meam ego cognosco,
    et peccatum meum contra me est semper.

Wash me thoroughly of my wickedness
    and cleanse me of my sin.
For I know my wickedness
    and my sin is always against me.
Along with two pieces on more secular texts, the selection of music is certainly worth hearing, especially the double nenia of Quid vitam sine te (the husband's lament answered by the voice of the dead wife from heaven, ending so memorably with the triple echo of "Remember me -- me -- me"). Note, however, that this disc represents the nascent formation of the Lords sound, in terms of consistency of vocal beauty, intonation, and vowel color (from even earlier than the last time we reviewed them in concert). Although there are glimmers of more polished sound and many stunning passages, it is not yet the image of consistently flawless and focused performance you usually hear from the Tallis Scholars or Chanticleer. The personnel has changed over the course of four years, and as the concert and recording profile of the group continues to improve -- a new CD of music by Jean Mouton is forthcoming -- the Lords will have the chance to achieve their enormous potential.

Hear the Suspicious Cheese Lords sing the music of Jean Mouton for yourself, this Sunday (February 10, 4 pm), at Alexandria's Old Presbyterian Meeting House. The program also includes some pieces by Genet (Carpentras) and good old Ludwig Senfl. For those outside of Washington, the Lords will also take this program to Pittsburgh (February 15) and Cleveland (February 17). All of these concerts are free, with a good-will offering to be collected.

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