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)
LYRITA SRCD391 [65:35]
Whoever chose the photograph that adorns the front of Lyrita’s booklet has made a particularly felicitous choice. Bernard Mitchell’s picture of Daniel Jones shows him beaming and raising a foaming pint of beer. For all the world, he looks as if he is toasting the completion of Lyrita’s project to issue all thirteen of his symphonies on CD. Jones’ symphonic journey began with his First symphony in 1947 (review) and ended 45 years later with the Thirteenth, completed just the year before he died. There’s a nice symmetry to this release in that it features two conductors, Bryden Thomson (1926-1991) and Sir Charles Groves (1915-1992), who championed Jones’ music. In fact, between them these conductors led the recordings of all the other eleven symphonies released to date: Groves conducted three and Thomson the remaining eight. This disc introduces us to another conductor, the New Zealander, Tecwyn Evans (b 1971). In passing, this 2017 concert wasn’t Evans’ first appearance with the BBCNOW. I recall that in March 2016 he’d honoured another Welsh composer, conducting what was just the second performance of Grace Williams’ large-scale Missa Cambrensis (1971). I wonder if Lyrita might consider that recording as a candidate for CD issue.
I recall, from reviewing the Eleventh Symphony, that Paul Conway described that work as “flinty and terse”. To be honest, I found it something of a tough nut to crack and I approached this recording of Jones’ final two symphonies expecting something similar. In fact, that proved to be only partially true. There is indeed terseness, especially the Twelfth – as his career as a symphonist progressed, Daniel Jones demonstrated more and more an ability to say what he needed to say in a concise fashion. However, I found these last two symphonies rather more approachable than the Eleventh. Incidentally, mention of Paul Conway’s summation of that symphony is a good cue to say that in reviewing all these recent Lyrita issues I’ve found his notes to be an indispensable guide, both in terms of background information and also his commentary on the music. Unsurprisingly, that’s the case with this final release also.
I learned from the notes that the Twelfth Symphony came into being as a result of a commission from a trade union. In an example of enlightened artistic patronage, the Civil and Public Services Association commissioned the symphony to mark the retirement of their General Secretary, Ken Thomas. The symphony is cast in four movements and, in Paul Conway’s words, it’s “a fine example of Jones at his most succinct and incisive”.
There’s an attractive lyrical introduction (Tranquillo) after which, at 1:54, the main body of the movement (Agitato) bursts forth. This is strong and communicative music, vigorously performed here. A brief reminiscence of the Tranquillo section closes the movement. The second movement is short and pithy – Paul Conway rightly draws attention to the “quirky accentuation” that characterises the music. The marking is Giocoso and there’s an element of deliberate gawkiness about the writing. If you listen to it you may feel, as I do, it’s the music of the twinkling-eyed man pictured on the booklet cover. By contrast, the third movement certainly lives up to its marking, Serioso. This is earnest music with a degree of harmonic ambiguity and it includes some powerful climaxes. Its quite a big musical statement yet it plays only for just over four minutes. Jones ends with a movement marked Risoluto. This contains vigorous, march-like music in which much use is made of dotted rhythms. It’s punchy music and the BBC Welsh orchestra gives a punchy account of it. If this was intended (at the time of composition) as Jones’ farewell to symphonic composition then he chose to exit the form in emphatic and positive vein. Thomson and the orchestra are splendid advocates for a symphony that says a lot in a remarkably short time span.
I referred to the Twelfth as possibly Daniel Jones’ intended farewell to the composition of symphonies. I say that because Paul Conway points our that with this work, he had composed a set of symphonies, each one of which was based on one of the twelve tones. Tellingly, perhaps, Jones headed up the score with a quotation from Pushkin: ‘Yet one last tale, And my chronicle is ended’. However, Jones was tempted back into symphonic writing seven years later when, in the year before he died, he composed a symphony to commemorate John Fussell, an old friend who had died in 1990. Fussell was Swansea’s Director of Music and City Organist for the last twenty years of his life. As in the Twelfth, there are four movements and in each one Jones sought to illustrate an aspect of his late friend’s character. A substantial orchestra is used. As in the previous symphony, Jones specified triple woodwind and a full brass complement: however, whereas in the previous symphony he’d deployed a timpanist and two percussionists, here the percussion section is expanded to no less than seven players. Also, uniquely in Jones’ symphonies (I think) an organ is used, though this instrument is only involved in the finale where it clearly pays tribute to John Fussell, the organist.
The opening movement is marked Solenne. It opens with a Prologue which includes a notable trombone solo and some highly imaginative colourings in the supporting orchestration. At 1:51 we hear a string episode which (I think) marks the start of the main body of the movement. Based on material introduced in the Prologue, this is solemn and elegiac music. There’s a brief reference back to the Prologue (from 8:21) which forms the movement’s coda; in that respect there’s a structural similarity with the opening movement of the Twelfth. This movement is imposing and seriously impressive.
There follows a short scherzo (Capriccioso) which Paul Conway describes as “shadowy [and] capricious”. Apart from a brief central section which is slower, the music, which is usually lightly scored, is full of vitality. Then comes a Lento which opens with a series of woodwind solos; the mood is mysterious. At 2:30 a bell stroke heralds the start of a slow processional which gets nearer before moving away from the listener; at its peak there’s a big climax. |This is a grave and mysterious movement. The finale starts with music bearing a favourite Jones marking, Agitato. This is spiky, very rhythmic music. It’s not long, though, before a passage marked Tranquillo (0:55) in which muted strings play a quotation from an organ piece by Jones which John Fussell used to play. This section continues with affecting woodwind writing. There’s a return to the very spirited Agitato material and then at 2:43 the organ is heard for the first time; unsurprisingly, the instrument is given the material from the earlier organ work. From here on, Jones builds the music towards a conclusion in which the three orchestral trumpets, playing in unison, and the organ lead a big, affirmative ending. In the booklet Paul Conway includes a verdict on the Twelfth Symphony by the distinguished Welsh music critic and journalist Kenneth Loveland (1915-1998) in which he declared the Twelfth to be “the best of the set”. That judgement dates from 1985. I wonder if Loveland came to think equally highly of the Thirteenth, which seems to me to be a very fine composition.
To complete the disc Lyrita add a recording of the first performance of Jones’ cantata Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life. This sets words by the seventeenth century Welsh poet and divine George Herbert (1593-1633). Jones, who it should be remembered, took his degree not in music but in English Literature, had something of an affinity with the poetry of this period. Indeed, his first significant choral work The Country Beyond the Stars (review) sets texts by another Welsh metaphysical poet, Henry Vaughan (1621-1695). There are seven sections, the fourth of which is an orchestra interlude of no little substance. The recording is quite good but the choir, which would have been placed behind the orchestra in the concert hall, is not as clearly heard as is the orchestra. As a result, their words are often indistinct.
The way Jones sets the words is inventive. For example, the first setting, ‘The Call’, is set in strongly homophonic choral writing while later on the fifth section, which sets a passage from ‘The Temple’ is for unaccompanied choir, including an echo semi-chorus. The final section, also from ‘The Temple’ is the famous ‘Let all the world in every corner sing’, for which Jones writes exuberant music. On the other hand, the second section is ‘The Choler’ [The Collar]; here, the music is powerful but exerted no great appeal to me. The tenor soloist appears only in the penultimate section, ‘A Dialogue’ in which the soloist sings the words of Christian while the chorus sings those allotted to Death. Maldwyn Davies is in ringing voice. I came to the conclusion that the orchestral interlude contains the best music in the piece. As I listened, I asked myself would I enjoy singing in the cantata and I’m not sure I would. I admit that maybe I’m conditioned because several of the chosen texts had previously been set by Vaughan Williams in Five Mystical Songs. However, I honestly don’t think that it’s simply greater familiarity that makes me think that VW’s settings of Herbert were more attractive and successful. Others may find more to love in this cantata. I respect it and I’m glad that it’s available on disc at last. Certainly, there’s no denying the fervour of this premiere performance under the leadership of Sir Charles Groves.
These BBC recordings have come up extremely well in Lyrita’s transfers. The recording of the Thirteenth Symphony, being by far the most recent, offers the best sound but the sound in which the Twelfth is presented is fully satisfactory. The cantata comes across well, too, though as I said the choral contributions aren’t always ideally clear. Paul Conway’s extensive and scrupulously researched notes are a model of their kind.
So, at last all thirteen of Daniel Jones’ symphonies are available on CD. We are indebted to Lyrita for making them all available. Having all thirteen works on disc – and all of them in fine, dedicated performances – now means that they can be appreciated and evaluated at leisure. They deserve no less, because they constitute a very significant contribution to twentieth century British symphonic literature.
Symphony 12 - BBC Studio Recording, broadcast 23 March 1990
Symphony 13 - BBC Concert Broadcast, 23 January 2017
Come, My Way - BBC Broadcast from the Swansea Festival premiere, 10 October 1987
The Daniel Jones symphonies on MusicWeb International
Symphonies 1 & 10 review
Symphonies 2 & 11 review ~ review
Symphonies 4, 7 & 8 review
Symphonies 6 & 9 review
Symphonies 3 & 5 review ~ review