Tuesday 4 August 2015

Spectacularly fine singing and instrumental playing from Apollo’s Fire on their new release for Avie, Sugarloaf Mountain: An Appalachian Gathering

Apollo’s Fire http://apollosfire.org is a period instrument band with a difference.  Named after the classical god of music and the sun, the ensemble was founded in 1992 by the harpsichordist and conductor Jeannette Sorrell. Sorrell envisioned an ensemble dedicated to the baroque ideal that music should evoke the various Affekts or passions in the listeners. Apollo’s Fire is a collection of creative artists who share Sorrell’s passion for drama and rhetoric.

More importantly these musicians are not afraid to encompass music from a wider tradition, something that is revealed in their latest release for Avie Records www.avie-records.com  entitled Sugarloaf Mountain.

Their journey through traditional folk songs, fiddle tunes, ballades, barn dances, and music from old time revivalist meetings, Come to the River, debuted at No. 9 in the Billboard Classical Chart and their disc entitled Sacrum Mysterium: A Celtic Christmas Vespers entered at No.11. Their range of recorded repertoire has encompassed traditional tunes from British Isles, Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and works by Vivaldi, Mozart, Handel and Monteverdi, to name just a few.

Their new release Sugarloaf Mountain: An Appalachian Gathering explores the rich repertoire of renaissance English and Scottish ballads that crossed the Atlantic and evolved to express a new world.

This new disc follows the journey of this music and those that carried it to the New World by dividing the pieces into seven sections.

Prologue brings The Mountains Of Rhùm (arr. Jeannette Sorrell) with Kathie Stewart revealing the lovely timbre of her wooden flute as she leads this opening piece. Singers, tenor Ross Hauck and soprano Amanda Powell, bring just the right balance of vocal style, finely controlled voices with excellent tone, yet capturing a natural folk element. This lovely traditional Scottish song has a lovely leisurely, reflective air and, of course, a Scottish lilt.

Crossing to the New World takes us straight into two terrific traditional Irish and Appalachian reels, Farewell to Ireland and Highlander's Farewell (arr. Jeannette Sorrell) led by terrific fiddle player Susanna Perry Gilmore and with Apollo’s Fire bringing some absolutely wonderful sounds with their weaving of instrumental textures and timbres. There is a very finely done harpsichord passage from Jeannette Sorrell before the Highlander’s Farewell that hurtles off full of energy and life.

Ross Hauck and Amanda Powell return for We'll Rant and We'll Roar (Farewell to the Isles) (Arr. Jeannette Sorrell), a traditional British and Canadian sea shanty where we hear the hammered dulcimer of Tina Bergman as well as the fiddle of Susanna Perry Gilmore, a fine blend of instruments in this shanty regretting the leaving the land of their fathers.

Dark Mountain Home opens with a traditional English/Appalachian ballad The Cruel Sister (arr. Jeannette Sorrell) introduced by the hammered dulcimer, soon joined by Amanda Powell. There are some lovely textures from the instrumentalists in this melancholy ballad. Later, Powell is joined by an ensemble of five singers before the music picks up a gentle rhythmic pace and we hear the sound of the wooden flute within the instrumental texture.  

Three traditional Irish pieces follow, Se Fath Mo Buart Ha, The Butterfly and Barney Brallaghan (arr. Kathie Stewart). Kathie Stewart’s flute opens with a lovely melody, full of atmosphere with Irish inflections. This flautist is most accomplished, bringing so many techniques to enhance this fine melody. Soon the tempo picks up for The Butterfly as it gently and buoyantly moves forward with plucked string accompaniment, then the whole ensemble, before running into Barney Brallaghan.

The medieval English and Appalachian ballad Nottamun Town (arr. Brian Kay) features the long neck dulcimer of Brian Kay to which he also provides the vocals brings,  bringing a more American (or rather Appalachian) feel to this mediaeval English ballad with much fine fire and passion showing what a skilled instrumentalist he is.

Black Is The Color Of My True Love's Hair (arr. Jeannette Sorrell and Rene Schiffer) is a traditional Scottish/Appalachian song again featuring singer Ross Hauck.  There is a harpsichord opening before Hauck uses his fine tenor voice to great effect in this melancholy ballad. There is some lovely cello accompaniment to the harpsichord and voice with a rhythmic pulse eventually pointing up the song as the violin weaves a melody.

Traditional AppaIachian and Scottish songs follow,  Wonder As I Wander, The Gravel Walk and Over The Isles To America (arr. Jeannette Sorrell). Apollo's Fire director and harpsichordist, Jeannette Sorrell brings the fine melody of Wonder As I Wander speeding for The Gravel Walk, a terrific rhythmic dance tune before the rest of the ensemble join as we are taken into an ever faster tune, Over The Isles To America. Jeannette Sorrell is certainly a very fine musician.

Cornshuck Party brings the entertaining traditional British/Appalachian ballad The Fox Went Out On A Chilly Night (arr. Jeannette Sorrell) with Amanda Powell bringing a great panache and style to her singing as do the fine players.
The vocals of Brian Kay and Ross Hauck and the fiddle of Susanna Perry Gilmore come together for the well-known Stephen Foster minstrel song, Oh Susanna! followed by two traditional Irish reels, Pretty Peg and Far From Home (arr. Jeannette Sorrell and Rene Schiffer). These performers bring such variety and style to these pieces with terrific sweep from the ensemble who really swing in the later pieces.

Love and Loss introduces a sadder note with the traditional British and Appalachian ballad Once I Had A Sweetheart and Wayfaring Stranger (The Kentucky Harmony, 1816 arr. Jeannette Sorrell) Amanda Powell gives a first rate performance of Once I Had A Sweetheart, a sad ballad of loss before we move naturally into Wayfaring Stranger, with Ross Hauck joining and bringing a real sense of desolation both weaving some fine vocal sounds. These performances are real winners.  

There are more traditional Appalachian songs with Pretty Betty Martin, Katy Did and Red Rockin' Chair (arr. Tina Bergmann) Tina Bergman’s hammered dulcimer opens with a very evocative and atmospheric sound before the cello of René Schiffer joins and the pace pushes ahead full of rhythmic joy.  The rhythms subtly change before Amanda Powell joins for Red Rockin' Chair, with added vocals, in a first rate performance.

Just Before the Battle Mother takes us up to the time of the American Civil War with Ross Hauck providing a very fine solo in this sentimental song, beautifully judged and proving just how fine a voice he has. Amanda Powell comes in as she introduces Go March Along, a Southern Spiritual that makes the perfect response, Powell bringing just the right inflections to this spiritual before these two fine voices combine.

Glory on The Mountain brings a vibrant, rhythmic Glory in the Meeting House with the instrumental ensemble providing some terrific textures and individual instrumental timbres, full of life.

Oh Mary, Don't You Weep is another Southern spiritual (lyrics adapted by Jeannette Sorrell) where Amanda Powell, with an ensemble of singers, brings a typical Southern spiritual yet with a personal slant, Powell showing terrific flexibility and style.

Appalachian Home concludes this journey with the title song Sugarloaf Mountain (arranged and adapted by Jeannette Sorrell). The fiddle of Susanna Perry Gilmore opens, reminding us of Scotland with the lyrics now taking us to Sugarloaf Mountain. The singers and vocal ensemble return as the travellers are home bringing a lovely conclusion with the words ‘Come to our mountain and stay here with me.’

There is a real feeling of transition as the musical journey progresses with some spectacularly fine singing and instrumental playing. This ensemble receive a first rate recording and there are useful booklet notes together with full English texts.

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