Alwyn had the misfortune of writing these works at a time when 'traditional' values of composition had been replaced by other attractions of an avant garde nature. This was reflected in the choice of music promoted by the broadcasters and this resulted in these fine works not being heard either sufficiently or fairly.
Alwyn was a prolific writer of film scores, with over 60 to his name, as well as being a composition professor at the Royal Academy of Music. The considerable success of his film music provided the financial security required to support his symphonic output. His music is tightly argued and lyrical. There are no major melodies such as are found in Rachmaninov or Elgar for example but instead there is an emphasis on motifs which are worked through lyrically such as in Beethoven for example The music is also extremely effective dramatically having an inbuilt epic quality about it. The orchestration shows considerable flair for colour and this works seamlessly with his compositional skills. All of these qualities are to be expected of a successful film score writer where there is no room for slackness of any variety and where every idea must work effectively.
The first four symphonies were conceived as a compositional group and written close together in the 1950's. This grouping has little bearing on the listener who can simply enjoy the music of each symphony on an individual basis. The grouping is more to do with the way in which they were written. They thus form a 4 movement group with the first symphony being the exposition, the second being the slow movement, the third being a march-scherzo and the fourth being the epilogue. However each of these symphonies has its own range of movements so linking the 4 symphonies as a listener might be more distracting than useful. Alwyn himself stressed that each symphony had to be 'a satisfactory entity in itself.'
On this well recorded disc from the mid 1970's Alwyn conducts the first and last symphonies of the sequence outlined above. The first symphony is the longer of the two while the fourth is the more compact. The informative sleeve notes are both by Alwyn himself plus Trevor Hold. Alwyn, like Britten, was an excellent conductor of his own work and these two performances have the unmistakable sensation of authenticity. The control of pace and the impact of the dramatic points are all unerringly delivered.
There is also a fine set by Hickox. That is more expensive but the Chandos sound is of demonstration quality and is superior than these discs, fine though they are. Hickox takes a more subjectively dramatic view of the works while Alywyn is just that bit more objective. Hickox is supported by vivid and spectacular playing from the LSO. These two sets are not really in competition as they offer different emphases and either will give considerable satisfaction.
I would suggest that collectors of multiple versions will want to obtain both sets and that is really the best answer in this case. Those interested in just one set could be happy with either and not feel short-changed. This set on Lyrita has a significant price advantage though and that may be the deciding factor.