Doulce Memoire--that's "Sweet Memory," with a Renaissance accent--visited Washington Wednesday night on its first American tour, and its performance, at La Maison Francaise, richly satisfied the expectations raised by its seven compact disc recordings. It is, to put it simply, one of the world's finest early music ensembles, impressive in French music of the Renaissance, which made up its program here, but also strong in Italian repertoire (as illustrated by an encore that will be recorded on its next CD).

Doulce Memoire includes four superb vocalists, who sing in various combinations with a fine sense of both style and ensemble (not to mention an idiomatic Renaissance French accent) and seven instrumentalists who have conquered the various exotic challenges of Renaissance instruments, particularly the more recalcitrant winds, with a fine balance of precision and panache. Its instrumentalists may be more familiar to American audiences because they are featured in "Renaissance Winds" and "Folie Douce," the group's first two recordings on the Dorian label--an enterprising little company in Upstate New York that is taking a dominant position in the booming early music field.

In true Renaissance style, the singers are equally at home in religious music--e.g. the "Kings' Requiem" of Eustache du Caurroy, recorded on the Astree label--and secular music, often X-rated. Their Wednesday concert at the French Embassy, "Songs and Dances of the French Renaissance," ranged widely in subject and style but many of its most memorable moments dealt with what the French call "L'esprit Gaulois," an earthy celebration of sexuality commonly associated with the writings of Rabelais, less commonly but more intensely with Brantome's "Les Dames Galantes" and the "Contes" of LaFontaine.

A printed sheet with texts and translations was supplied, but some texts were left untranslated and a couple not even printed--because of the "high moral standards" of the French government, as commentator Robert Aubry Davis explained. One of these, "Il etait une fillette" ("There was a young woman") by Clement Jannequin, describes the seduction of a virgin and her critical comments afterward ("rough at the beginning but nice at the end"). Lack of text and translation may have left some details uncertain, but the richly expressive singing of tenor Serge Goubioud left little doubt about what was going on.

The program will be religious (and probably performed in a local church) when the group makes its next Washington visit two years from now.