MUSIC / An age of innocents: Anthony Payne reviews the London Schools Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Centre

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The Independent Culture
Avoiding the standard repertory for its Barbican Centre programme on Monday, the London Schools Symphony Orchestra performed music that devotees more usually encounter in the privacy of their homes than in the concert hall. Butterworth's A Shropshire Lad, for instance, which opened the programme, must have moved more listeners with its poignant beauties through the medium of the gramophone than it has ever done in live performance. It was followed by Walton's Violin Concerto which was performed with brilliant virtuosity and the most sensitive poetry by Stephanie Gonley, and then we heard Glazunov's Fifth Symphony.

Glazunov must be one of the least politically right on composers imaginable. Even during the course of his career, he began to march out of step with his times, and later the next generation of young firebrands, Shostakovich among them, viewed him solely as a professorial throw-back, although liking him for his sympathetic support.

He is the sort of composer who falls foul of all commentators and so-called leaders of fashion who can only appreciate the surface of a work of art. For half of his life and ever after, Glazunov's style has been old-fashioned, and therefore has been deemed by his critics as irrelevant.

But what else is a composer like Glazunov to do when he becomes out of sympathy with the moral and artistic climate of his time? It would be far better to view his conservative art as a veiled critique of his time. A work such as Glazunov's Fifth Symphony of 1895 does not possess the violent contrasts and disruptive elements which enabled, say, Tchaikovsky to encompass an era with all its tensions and ambivalences. But there is a pristine innocence to its vision which tells an individual and touching story. If Glazunov adds little to the early Russian romantic style he inherited as a brilliantly gifted teenager, he was still able to create with it music of honesty and freshness until well into the 20th century - anachronistic, maybe, but for that quality the more fascinating.

It is the type of music which would seem to be ideally suited to the enthusiastic impulses of young performers, and under the direction of Christopher Adey the orchestra characterised it with spirit and skill. They were not helped by an acoustic which does not round out the middle and lower sonorities, and some thematic lines failed to cut through the texture. But the enchanting scherzo sparkled and the cumulative dance measures of the finale never descended into rowdiness. They were no less responsive in supporting Stephanie Gonley's superb playing, and perhaps only in the Butterworth fell prey to inexperience with their tentative treatment of delicate textures.