A Review of the Alva CD
"The Bells Of Paradise"

"The Bells Of Paradise"
by Alva

(Beautiful Jo Records: BEJOCD-45)

This review is written by Dai Woosnam, daigress@hotmail.com, 6/04

Before I start this review, I ought to relate how it was I came to have this copy in my CD player right now.

Normally, it is a straightforward matter of a review copy arriving at my door, often from Left Field. Not so here though.This was a case of ME hunting out the album: so eager was I to review it.

And here's how it came about. I was listening to BBC Radio 3 in the early Spring of 2004 and I caught a radio programme. One that brought me greater delight than just about any Folk programme I can ever remember.

It was entitled “The Lark in The Morning” and was an hour-long concert by Vivien Ellis and Giles Lewin (who make up the British-based duo, Alva) at the previous summer's York Early Music Festival. I have not been so moved by a Folk programme in years. I found it quite absorbing.

But if you tell someone that what you were hearing presented was amongst the classic Top 20 songs of the English Folk Tradition, they'd probably say, “so what?” But, if you told them that, you would be telling them just HALF the story.

Vivien Ellis is a singer with a sweet, pure, ENCHANTING voice that never resorts to mannerisms. No affectation. Pitch perfect. Singing these songs to Giles's spare - but telling ­ accompaniment. (Giles too can also handle a lyric.) Above all, she has the most wondrous diction one could imagine. But that in itself is not what made this programme special.

The real factor that made it so memorable was her introductions.

Before every song, Ms. Ellis spoke for a couple of minutes on the song to come. A bit like going to an A.L. Lloyd lecture. Songs that we had taken for granted all our lives, she FRAMED for us and put the song into the whole picture. I guess that this was in part due to the fact that many of her audience there at the York Early Music Festival might well have been keen exponents of “music for the sackbut” and such like, but perhaps did not know their way around a traditional ballad.

But even me (who regards himself as reasonably well-frequented with all the songs Alva delivered) found I could really benefit from her sincere and touching introductions. How fascinating to be reminded that Vaughan Williams's famous cycle ride to the village of Ingrave in Essex took place almost exactly 100 years before this concert! And then to hear Vivien beautifully sing the first of the songs that blew his cycle-clips off that day. And she pointed out that before he took that fateful bicycle ride, he had not actually HEARD any source singers, nor indeed ANYONE in the field singing even ONE of these traditional songs, despite the fact that he was lecturing about them!

She reminded us that Vaughan Williams had given a lecture in Chelmsford in Essex that was attended by the two spinster daughters of the Vicar of Ingrave. After the lecture, they told him that he should come to tea at the vicarage, because they would then arrange to have some villagers present who would sing him some of the very songs he was lecturing about! And when he eventually cycled there, the first song “Bushes and Briars” was sung by 74-year-old labourer, Charles Potiphar. The 31-year old Ralph Vaughan Williams was hooked. And the rest, as they say, is HISTORY.

But no, not quite “history”. By some magic, Ellis not only made it immediately belong to NOW, but aided by the brilliant introduction, pulled off the trick of singing it like SHE was Potiphar and the audience was RVW … which in a sense I am sure many of them were (i.e. like him, hearing it for the first time).

And so the wonderful concert continued. And I thought: BBC Radio 3 is where Lord Lucan is living, as far as many Folkies are concerned (though not the cognoscenti, I hasten to add!). Surely, this is the very concert ­ and I mean the total thing, including the introductions ­ that folk clubs and festivals the length and breadth of the land should be booking, instead of occasionally hiring those singer-songwriters whose desperately inept lyrics beggar belief. So note that name, ALVA, you bookers out there.

Truly fine.

And thus that is the history behind my decision to hunt down this album.

And so, “get my hands” on a copy of the CD, I did. The CD of course contains the songs used in that programme: songs I have referred to above.

They are of course songs that need no description from me: just study the track list below and, if you are a student of the British Folk Tradition, then most of the songs will already be firmly ensconced in your memory.

The CD ­ not unexpectedly - proved to be an unalloyed DELIGHT. I have insufficient superlatives in my lexicon to describe it. In contrast to the radio programme, here Vivien's hurdy-gurdy plays a significant part.

From the getgo. This scandalously neglected instrument provides a magnificently brooding presence from the very start of that hypnotic and mysterious 16th century Corpus Christi carol “The Bells of Paradise”. And one was hooked. A bit like with a great book. This was the CD equivalent to a “REAL PAGE-TURNER”. I could not put it down …or rather, TURN IT OFF.

However, let me sober up here. I am, after all, writing this in the role of an impartial critic. (Or at least, I certainly SHOULD be.) And thus, in the interests of writing an “objective review”, rather than a “gushing fan letter”, I should perhaps slightly bemoan the fact that the album does not contain Vivien's glorious spoken introductions to every song! Instead we have to make do with an informative and well-presented liner booklet.

Maybe next album, we can have her spoken voice introducing every track?

Ha! Who knows, it might start a fashion!

Wherever you are in the world, you can get this wonderful album by mail order fromwww.bejo.co.uk (e-mail toinfo@bejo.co.uk)

Dai Woosnam
Grimsby, England

Track List:

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