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Daniel JONES (1912-1993)
Symphony No 12 (1985) [16:23]
Symphony in memory of John Fussell (Symphony No 13) (1992) [29:44]
Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life, Cantata for tenor, SATB chorus and orchestra (1987) [24:26]
Maldwyn Davies (tenor)
BBC Welsh Chorus & Orchestra/Sir Charles Groves (Come)
BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra/Bryden Thomson (12)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Tecwyn Evans (13)
Stereo ADD LYRITA SRCD391 [65:35]
This disc will be an especial cause for celebration for all collectors and admirers of the music of Daniel Jones. It represents the completion of the cycle of Jones’ thirteen symphonies in commercially available recordings. Given the significance of symphonic form in his body work, this is a crucial addition to the wider understanding and appreciation of this too-little known composer.
Paul Conway provides a typically detailed and informative liner note and Jones’ writing in turn provides several pithy and apt descriptions. Amongst which is the composer’s view that the Symphony is; “a dramatic structure with emotive intention”. How he achieved this goal is varied across his entire cycle and I would strongly urge the curious to hear the entire canon. One quite novel feature – and something apparently Jones only realised he could achieve about half-way through the cycle (in fact after his Symphony No.7) - is that each of the first twelve symphonies is based on a different note of the chromatic scale.
The Symphony No.12 that opens the disc was premiered by the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra in 1985 and bears the superscription; “Yet one last tale, And my chronicle is ended”. Clearly, at the time of its writing, Jones believed this would be his last Symphony, yet there is no sense of finality or closure. In fact quite the reverse – this proves to be a work that positively revels in its own energy and forthrightness. Another entertaining observation from the composer certainly pertains to this work; “most music seems too long these days.... what I’m after is sufficient brevity. The ideal is that the listener will feel that a point has been made and the argument concluded.... one should say what one has to say and shut up”. I would suggest that Jones admirably achieves his intentions here. The entire four movement work last just some sixteen and a half minutes with the second movement giocoso just 2:10. Jones uses a fairly standard Romantic orchestra – triple woodwind, standard brass, strings and just a pair of percussionists. His handling of the orchestra is skilled and effective and, as might be gleaned from those previous quotes never excessive or overly complex. Indeed clarity, both in terms of musical form as well as instrumentation is an enduring feature of most of Jones’ scores. There is this over-arching consistency across the forty years span between Symphony No.1 and No.12. While Jones might seek different answers to the same essential question of what a symphony should be, the answers are reached through a process of evolution and adjustment rather than radical change.
Possibly what works against Jones in terms of wider popularity is a refusal to over decorate. These are works that are impressive and compelling but without ever relying on obvious gestures or easy solutions. As such they demand a certain degree of engagement by a listener but once that has been given the rewards are considerable. That said, I did enjoy the thirteenth symphony more than its predecessor. No.13 is still far from an extended work – here the four movements occupy just under twenty five minutes - but somehow in its role as an “In Memoriam” work – here written for Swansea’s Director of Music and City Organist (and close friend of Jones) John Fussell – there is a sense that this time the work might really represent the culmination of Jones’ life and work as well as Fussell’s. So although the score is written “In memory of John Fussell”, it would seem to be a celebration of his life rather than a sombre reflection on it. Certainly Jones’ scoring is more colourful and lavish than many of the preceding symphonies. The ‘basic’ orchestra is the same as in No.12 but with the significant addition of five extra percussionists playing an extensive array of tuned percussion in particular, and an important part for organ. The first – and longest – movement is marked solenne with an extended trombone soliloquy accompanied by a very unique group of deep marimba, tolling timpani, low horns and bass instruments. While this music is certainly solemn I would not consider it melancholy, instead it seems to be slowly reaching up through the layers of orchestral registration. Another brief scherzo –Capriccioso – follows and this is a gem of agile and nimble writing. Worth considering the composer was in his eighties by the time he wrote this and you can hear him still revelling in the complex interchanges of timbres, textures and metre. Lovely nimble playing here by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Tecwyn Evans. The slow movement Lento follows and does have echoes of a funeral procession with muffled drums leading to an impassioned climax just over half way through the movement. This is an impressive movement, serious rather than sorrowing but with an angular lyricism that is so typical of many Jones movements. The finale sets off in an uncompromising agitato but soon relaxes into a tranquillo remembrance of an earlier Jones work A refusal to mourn. This is doubly apt as that work was a piece written for and performed by Fussell which took its title from a Dylan Thomas poem. Thomas was of course a great personal friend of Jones so perhaps it is not too far-fetched to see this symphony as ultimately commemorating two significant friendships in Jones’ life. The second statement of this theme is given to the aforementioned organ in its first appearance in the work. Even without understanding the specific significance of the instrument’s use or indeed the music it plays this is an arresting moment. The organ is then joined by three unison trumpets which leads the work to a blazingly affirmative conclusion in an unambiguous major key. As Jones’ very last symphonic utterance it is really rather wonderful.
This work also benefits from being the most recent recording – 2017 – and coming from the BBC’s own archives. The other two works are drawn from the remarkable source of Richard Itter’s Lyrita Recorded Edition Trust Archive. This means that they are off-air recordings with a degree of hiss and a slight flattening of the stereo soundstage. The recording of the cantata Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life was taken from the 1987 premiere but the sound here is the least impressive – not bad by any means but Jones’ orchestral and choral detail is not shown to its greatest advantage. The cantata was another memorial commission, this time for another Swansea colleague and friend John Aeron-Thomas. The text is taken from poetry by George Herbert and in part (the first and last movements) will be familiar to many people through their setting as part of Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs. Jones was a sprightly seventy five when he wrote the work. By this time his handling of choral writing was assured and effective. All that stands against the work being better known is its length – another sub-twenty five minute score – which means it is hard for choirs to programme given its technical demands. Also, Jones requires a tenor soloist for just one of the seven sections, but that solo is in turn almost operatically demanding. Here Maldwyn Davies sings the solo with exciting attack and conviction. The whole work is overseen by a longtime Jones collaborator and promoter – Sir Charles Groves. For a first performance this seems to be technically secure and interpretively convincing. The only disappointment is the slightly distant and opaque sound. But with no other versions to compare against and to be honest none likely to appear any time soon this is still an important and valuable document.
The term “important and valuable document” could be applied to the entire collection of six Lyrita discs that now comprise the complete Jones Symphony Edition. Special praise across the entire cycle to both the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra (and their latter incarnation) who perform ten of the thirteen works and conductors Bryden Thomson (nine) and Sir Charles Groves (three symphonies and the Cantata) for their indefatigable promotion of these impressive and powerful works. Given the quantity and quality of these thirteen symphonies there is an argument to made for them being the most significant but least appreciated cycle by a British composer bar none. A minor but crowning delight is the cover photograph of Jones beaming over a foaming pint of beer – a picture that somehow captures the no-nonsense warmth of the composer which is so often apparent in his music.
Admirers of Jones’ work will have snapped up this disc as soon as it became available. Such is the consistency of this cycle that I am not sure any particular disc “jumps out” as being an especially good entry point for listeners new to Jones’ work. Possibly the studio recordings of Symphonies 6 and 9 coupled with another Cantata The Country Beyond the Stars is as good as any but once bitten, the only answer is to hear them all!