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Daniel JONES (1912-1993)
Symphony No 3 (1951) [28:29]
Symphony No 5 (1958) [39:33]
BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra/Bryden Thomson
rec. BBC Studio, broadcast 26 January 1990 (Symphony 3) and 9 February 1990. ADD stereo. LYRITA SRCD.390 [68:03]
Back in 2017 I reviewed the Lyrita disc which coupled Bryden Thomson’s performances of the Second and Eleventh symphonies of Daniel Jones. I noted at the time that the release took to nine the number of Jones’ thirteen symphonies in the Lyrita catalogue. Already released had been the First symphony (1947) coupled with the Tenth (1981) (review); the Sixth (1964) and Ninth (1974) (review); and a disc containing the Fourth (1954), Seventh (1972) and Eighth (1972) (review). That left Symphonies 3, 5, 12 and 13 and at that time Lyrita’s intention was to release recordings of those four symphonies during 2017 and 2018. Well, it’s taken a little longer than that, but now we have recordings of Jones’ Third and Fifth symphonies and I hope the remaining two will follow in due course.
Daniel Jones was a prolific composer and also widely read – his undergraduate degree was in English Literature and he was a lifelong friend of Dylan Thomas. What is perhaps forgotten – certainly I had not remembered – is that he was more than competent as a conductor; his conducting tutor at the Royal Academy was Sir Henry Wood, no less. It’s relevant to recall that fact because, as Paul Conway points out in his comprehensive booklet essay, both of these symphonies were premiered under the composer’s baton. He led the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra in a studio performance of the Third symphony in June 1952, while the premiere of the Fifth was given under his baton by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the Royal Festival Hall in February 1959. Incidentally, one other detail in the essay that caught my eye concerns the Third symphony. Sir Adrian Boult conducted the first concert performance of the work at the 1956 Cheltenham Festival and among the newspapers which had a correspondent present to review the event was the New York Times. Those were the days!
In his review of this release in its download format, my colleague Brian Wilson referred to “music immediate in appeal, yet powerful and genuinely symphonic in scope”. I agree, though I have to say that I found the Third symphony was in some ways something of a hard nut to crack. Paul Conway describes the score as “terse and closely argued” and that’s another judgement with which I concur. It’s cast in three movements. The first has a short, slightly mysterious introduction which gives way to a strongly rhythmical Allegro moderato. Here, the music is taut and purposeful and the BBC Welsh SO plays it incisively and confidently. The development section begins (3:16) with a fugal episode, initially for the strings, who are then joined by other instruments. This section is quite turbulent at times; the tone of the music is serious and there’s plenty of energy in the writing. The music rarely seems to rest, even when the dynamics are soft. Jones brings the movement to a conclusion that is quiet and, to my ears, somewhat uneasy.
The Lento slow movement opens with an extended, wide-ranging string melody. As the movement unfolds it seems to me that the tonality is ambiguous. The nature of both the melodies and the harmonic context of those melodies contribute to an air of mystery; one is conscious of depth of thought and seriousness of purpose. Paul Conway describes the movement as “austerely beautiful”. I wouldn’t disagree, though beauty is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder and I was more conscious of the austere side of that description. One thing’s for sure: the beauty is certainly not just skin deep. The concluding Allegro is characterised by what seems like indefatigable rhythmic propulsion. Energy levels are high and the music is often spiky in nature. Bryden Thomson and his players give a committed and assured account of the music.
Earlier, I mentioned that a critic of the New York Times had attended the premiere. Paul Conway quotes that critic’s verdict that the Third symphony is “a work of stubborn force”. I think that’s a pretty good judgement on a first hearing. I must confess that it’s a symphony that so far I admire rather than love. Whilst admiring the craftsmanship, the assurance with which the orchestra is handled, and the consistent firm sense of purpose, I craved some warmth in the writing. Others may well find warmth and feel that I’ve overlooked that quality; all I can say is that so far it has eluded me.
The Fifth symphony is a longer piece and it’s cast in four movements. Jones used almost identical orchestral forces to those specified for the Third symphony but he involved far more percussion instruments, stipulating two players rather than one. That said, the percussion instruments are used with considerable restraint, making their interjections all the more telling when they occur.
Jones opens proceedings with an Allegro moderato in which the very first thing we hear is a short melody, played by the horn section, which is of considerable importance to the movement as a whole. The music is vigorous and determined from the outset, although the oboe introduces a contrasting second theme (1:18) which other instruments then take up and develop. I admire the variety of orchestral textures and colours that Jones deploys in this movement as he develops his material; all sections of the orchestra are fully engaged though, as I said, he is self-disciplined when it comes to the percussion. This is a busy and interesting movement.
Concerning the second movement, you might ask the question: ‘When is a scherzo not a scherzo?’ It’s simply marked Allegro assai and Paul Conway says that it “has the form, tempo and rhythm of a scherzo – but in terms of character it is not a scherzo but simply a fast movement”. He’s right, but oftentimes Jones displays a wit and lightness of touch that make one think he’s flirting with the concept of a scherzo. The movement contains a number of sections and one interesting little feature is that the start of each of these sections is denoted by a small contribution from the glockenspiel. The music is almost always fast, dynamic and rhythmically alert; the BBC Welsh make a very good job of it. This is attractive and inventive music.
The Lento that follows often puts me in mind of a funeral march, albeit a march that is unstable in rhythm. It’s an impressive movement and Bryden Thomson ensures that the performance has the requisite intensity. Daniel Jones rounds off his symphony with a movement which, like the first, is marked Allegro moderato. As in that opening movement, he announces his principal theme at once, without ceremony; this time it’s the cellos and basses who do the honours. The movement that follows features a considerable amount of contrapuntal music and of all the four movements I found it the hardest to get to grips with, whilst admiring the compositional skills. The music is very confident and purposeful from start to finish. The conclusion is strong and emphatic; one has the distinct impression that Jones has said all he wants or needs to say and so brings the symphony to a definite but unfussy end, and that’s an admirable quality.
These two performances were broadcast by the BBC in January and March 1990. It’s worthy of note that the performances already issued by Lyrita of the First, Second, Tenth and Eleventh symphonies were also broadcast during those two months. The precise recording dates aren’t specified but it seems reasonable to assume that all six works were recorded around the same time for future transmission. That will have given conductor and orchestra an opportunity to immerse themselves in Daniel Jones’ music. I’ve no doubt that explains the commitment and assurance of these performances.
The recorded sound is slightly studio-bound but is completely acceptable. The music and the performances were done proper justice by the BBC engineers and Lyrita’s transfers are very good indeed. As ever, Paul Conway’s notes are thorough in terms of the background and insightful and persuasive when it comes to describing the music. He certainly made it a lot easier for me to appreciate what I was hearing.
I hope this series of Lyrita releases are serving their purpose in bringing Daniel Jones’ symphonies to the wider audience they deserve. Those who are collecting these CDs can add this latest one to their shopping list with confidence. I do hope Lyrita will be able to issue the final instalment in the series before long.