Sugarloaf Mountain: An Appalachian Gathering (CD review)

Jeannette Sorrell, Apollo's Fire Baroque Orchestra. Avie Records AV2329.

Director and harpsichordist Jeannette Sorrell formed the small, period-instrument ensemble Apollo's Fire in 1992 in order to create a new baroque orchestra in Cleveland, Ohio. As a previous booklet note observed, "Sorrell envisioned an ensemble dedicated to the baroque ideal that music should evoke the various Affekts or passions in the listeners. Apollo's Fire, named after the classical god of music and the sun, is a collection of creative artists who share Sorrell's passion for drama and rhetoric."

The members of Apollo's Fire on the present album include Amanda Powell, soprano; Ross Hauck, tenor; Susanna Perry Gilmore, fiddle; Kathie Stewart, wooden flutes and penny whistle; Tina Bergmann, vocals and hammered dulcimer; Rene Schiffer, cello; Brian Kay, vocals, lute, guitar, gourd banjo, and long-neck dulcimer; and Jennette Sorrell, harpsichord and direction.

While Sorrell and her ensemble generally stick to early classical music, the success of their album Come to the River: An Early American Gathering, which evoked the spirit of early 19th-century rural Americana, seems to have spurred them to do this follow-up, Sugarloaf Mountain: An Appalachian Gathering.

According to the source of all knowledge (at least mine at the moment), Wikipedia, "Appalachia is a cultural region in the Eastern United States that stretches from Southern New York to northern Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia. As of the 2010 census, the region was home to approximately 25 million people." More important to this album, it's the region where a lot of America's earliest settlers located, mostly immigrants from the British isles. It's also a region in which Ms. Sorrell, Ms. Powell, and Ms. Stewart grew up, so the album is something of a homecoming for them. And, as Ms. Sorrell explains, "This new disc is not a sequel to Come to the River. If anything, it is a prequel--reaching back in time to explore the earliest roots of Appalachian heritage."

Anyway, Ms. Sorrell has divided the program into seven sections and sixteen tunes, covering the migrants' journey to America ("Prologue" and "Coming to the New World"), their settling in the Appalachian Mountains ("Dark Mountain Home"), and their life here ("Cornshuck Party," "Love & Loss," "Glory on the Mountain," and "Appalachian Home"). The program's organization gives the album a focus and continuity rather than the album being merely another random selection of folk songs.

Apollo's Fire
Apollo's Fire bring a classic sensibility to the simple folk numbers in thoroughly refined musical presentations of the highest caliber. Listeners will either appreciate the beauty of their playing, or they will reject it as too good, too sophisticated. After all, the songs they perform are ones that traditionally only unpretentious country folk performed or occasional folk artists recorded. This, of course, has always been a danger with professional artists recording folk music: critics of an earlier day accused the Kingston Trio, the Limeliters, Peter, Paul & Mary, the Chad Mitchell Trio, even the Weavers of corrupting the term "folk music" with their scrubbed and polished versions of traditional tunes. So be it; if you don't like the idea, don't listen to it. At least Ms. Sorrell and several other members of Apollo's Fire grew up with this music, and you can hardly blame them for being good at performing it so well.

Here's a list on the songs on the disc:

  1. The Mountains of Rhùm
  2. Farewell to Ireland - Highlander's Farewell
  3. We'll Rant and We'll Road (Farewell to the Isles)
  4. The Cruel Sister
  5. Se fath mo buart ha (The Cause of All My Sorrow) - The Butterfly Barney Brallaghan
  6. Nottamun Town
  7. Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair
  8. I Wonder as I Wander - The Gravel Walk Over the Isles to America
  9. The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night
10. Oh Susanna! - Pretty Peg - Far From Home
11. Once I had a Sweetheart - Wayfaring Stranger
12. Pretty Betty Martin - Katy Did - Red Rockin' Chair
13. Just Before the Battle, Mother - Go March Along
14. Glory in the Meeting House
15. Oh Mary, Don't You Weep
16. Sugarloaf Mountain

Favorites? The opening number is lovely in a nostalgic sort of way. "We'll Rant and We'll Roar" is lively and familiar, and it may remind some listeners of "Spanish Ladies," the old sea shanty Robert Shaw sang in the movie Jaws. In keeping with the immigrants coming to the new land from England and Ireland, many of the songs have a Celtic influence to them; such is the case with the purely instrumental numbers in particular. "The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night" has a splendidly mischievous tone. "Oh Susanna!" offers a welcoming comfort; Hauck's solo "Don't Forget Me, Mother" glides seamlessly into Powell's "Go March Along" and the result is heartbreaking; and Powell's work in the spiritual "Oh Mary, Don't You Weep" is inspirational. The final number, the titular "Sugarloaf Mountain," is a further exploration of the opening tune, this time with a slightly greater emphasis on the flavor of Appalachia.

I might add if it isn't obvious by now that Ms. Powell has a fine, expressive soprano voice and Mr. Hauck a robust tenor. The rest of the ensemble sound expectedly accomplished, perhaps more so than a lot of purists would like. As I say, so be it.

Producers Jeannette Sorrell and Erica Brenner, recording and mastering engineer Thomas Knab, and editor Erica Brenner made the recordings in June 2014 at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Cleveland Heights, Ohio. The sound is clean, warm, and well rounded, a natural response from instruments and vocals. The stereo spread extends from speaker to speaker but not beyond, making for a realistic perspective. The instrumental sound appears detailed and well projected, with a mild hall resonance to provide a bit of ambient bloom. Voices seem modestly distanced and are set pleasingly within the instrumental background. It's all quite well recorded in a fairly natural way, with no hint of close-up pop style.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa