MUSIC / Here today, gone tomorrow: Anthony Payne on reputations reassessed at the LSO's Barbican concert

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The Independent Culture
William Alwyn was one of several fine composers of a conservative cast of thought who lost ground in the 1960s when a new generation of young composers influenced by the avant-garde of the time took centre stage. He remained productive, completing among other things his Fifth Symphony and an impressive opera on Strindberg's Miss Julie, but his music was increasingly neglected, and his brand of passionate post-romanticism fell temporarily out of fashion. Only in the cinema was his work regularly heard. Indeed his creation of some 60 film scores, including such achievements as the music for The Fallen Idol and Odd Man Out, probably prevented him from writing the works that might have gained him greater currency in the concert hall.

In our stylistically more permissive times his music seems to be making its way more easily, and, supported by a growing list of commercial recordings, Alwyn is reaching a new audience. It would certainly have been a shame if his admittedly anachronistic style had continued to prove a barrier to the acceptance of his generously emotional yet intellectually taut music.

These qualities were heard at their most cogent and persuasive in a splendid performance of the Third Symphony given by Richard Hickox and the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Centre on Thursday evening. This big three-movement work, passionate in utterance, bold in its thematic and harmonic dialectic, shows how, for all his innate conservatism, Alwyn was always searching to renew his language and vision. While remaining essentially tonal, it makes use of certain aspects of 12-note technique, and this enabled him to achieve a new freshness and vitality.

The first movement sets a pattern which is only resolved in the calm majesty of the symphony's final coda. It is a grand overall plan, and Alwyn carries it off with stirring courage. The orchestra responded to his robust rhetoric and idiomatic usage with enthusiasm, while Hickox, who is proving to be one of the composer's champions, revealed the symphony's heart and mind impressively.

Earlier we had heard a warm- hearted performance of Vaughan Williams's overture The Wasps, and the programme concluded with one of the most brilliant and dramatically engaged interpretations you could wish for of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana. The singing of the London Symphony Chorus possessed the attack of a cannonade and achieved the most jubilant sonority, while soloists Janice Watson, Michael Chance (whose 'Roasted Swan' was done to a turn) and Donald Maxwell projected with the utmost intensity, as did the Southend Boys Choir. All of which gives one pause to think about the quality of the music they were serving so uninhibitedly and with such conspicuous virtuosity.

It has justly been said that negative criticism tells you more about the critic than the work discussed, and my own lack of sympathy with Orff's continuous repetitions and his softening of the Stravinskian edges he is so influenced by must of course be placed beside the work's palpable popularity. Nevertheless, repeated hearings over the years have failed to reveal anything beneath the professionally honed surfaces. The repetitions still sound simplistic, the lyrical moments sentimental, and the rhythmic invention is not subtle enough to compensate for the lack of harmonic interest. If Carmina Burana presents a formula for success, it is a slightly depressing thought.