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Daniel Jones (1912-1993)
Rediscovered Piano Works
Martin Jones (piano)
rec. 2019-2021, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK
LYRITA SRCD2396 [4 CDs: 240]

In his short story The fight (published in 1940 as part of his semi-autobiographical Portrait of the artist as a young dog) Dylan Thomas described his friend Daniel Jones as playing the piano and announcing gravely “My twentieth sonata…this one is Homage to Beethoven.” For many years I and most other readers assumed a degree of satirical exaggeration in this description; those of us who knew the music of the composer were aware that he had written very little for the piano apart from his admittedly substantial collection of brief Bagatelles, certainly not a whole score of piano sonatas. In his booklet notes for this issue Martin Jones describes how, towards the end of Daniel Jones’s life, he had asked him whether there was any body of piano music to add to the Bagatelles, the composer replied bluntly that he was not interested in writing for the instrument and “had not written very much in the past.”

But, as it now transpires, Daniel Jones’s statements were as wildly at variance with the truth as Dylan Thomas’s. Martin Jones has unearthed in the music archives as the National Library of Wales a vast output of piano music written in the period 1933 to 1949 – and it clear that what is included in this collection of four very full discs is far from the whole of the body of music involved. We have for example a Piano Sonata No 6, which presumably means that there must have been at least previous predecessors even if Jones never reached Dylan Thomas’s total of twenty. What is far less clear is why Jones should have so earnestly undertaken to conceal the music and even more peculiarly, when having done so he should have deposited all of the manuscripts – which are apparently finely written out, fingered for performance, and seemingly prepared for immediate publication – in a public archive, only to then deny their very existence.

As it is, those who for some years were complaining of the tardy issue by Lyrita of the cycle of Daniel Jones symphonies (completed only in December last year with the final disc of recordings from the BBC Wales archives) have now an additional reason to be doubly grateful to the label – not only for the enterprise of getting Martin Jones to examine the National Library archives in Aberystwyth, but also for selecting and recording this substantial body of music which might otherwise well have gone unnoticed for ever. Jones himself might have suggested a reason for his reticence to allow the music to be performed (quite apart from an understandable preference for his more recently written scores) when he commented that he got into his “best stride when it’s a big stride” and denouncing his earlier music as “either experiments or disasters, usually both.” But a composer is never a very reliable judge of his early scores. Many have actually destroyed a whole raft of compositions regarded as immature or unrepresentative – Tippett and Orff in this very same period – and even ordered the withdrawal of works already published. And one does indeed get the same impression here as with the later Jones Bagatelles which I reviewed for this site in the recording by Llŷr Williams back in 2014: “Too many of the short movements seem to simply be sketches for more substantial pieces which are abandoned halfway through – sometimes with an attempt to provide a suitable coda, and sometimes not.”

Paul Conway, in a valuable and extensive booklet note, refers frequently to the composer’s allowing himself “the freedom to allow his imagination to wander freely.” Taking the cue from Jones’s own description of some of the pieces as “experiments” one might suggest that they start out purposefully, but allow themselves to drift off into improvisatory passages which are then sometimes completed with repeated or new material which does not necessarily spring from the same impulse with which the piece began. And one can begin to see why a composer who naturally thought in terms of extended symphonic forms might have found the results unsatisfactory. But then, some of the pieces here are superbly crafted miniatures or sketches which one would be most reluctant to lose. There are a number of sets of variations included here, where the short-breathed nature of the initial inspiration is turned to positive effect and developed with both skill and imagination. The earliest of these comes as the closing movement of the early Academic Suite of 1934, with three successive central variations entitled Tragico, Allegro burlesco and Lento amoroso – none of them over two minutes in duration – which form a contrast both poignant and witty. And a wry sense of humour is never far from the surface in many of the earlier pieces from the 1930s. The Theme and Variations in D flat (1941) and the Theme, Variations and Fugue in C-sharp minor (1945) show the composer developing in the same vein; and the last of these works, nearly half an hour long, demonstrates a sense of purpose and control evolving towards the appearance of the composer’s First Symphony in the same year.

This is very nearly the latest work on these four discs, although we do have a wan and slightly discontented backward glance in the Lento malinconico of 1949, with the impression of the composer bidding a not altogether fond farewell to his earlier piano music; it is the longest single-movement piece in this collection. The sixth sonata, written some ten years earlier, makes one wonder what the other five were like – or, indeed, even it had a further fourteen successors and whether any of them could perceivably have been described as a “homage to Beethoven.” All right, Beethovenian this music is not, but there is often a freshly Schubertian sense of melodic invention which brings an amiable sense of good humour; and even the more frankly “experimental” music – occasionally indeed tentatively reaching out in the direction of atonality – is never sufficiently dishevelled as to merit the description “disastrous”. The Legend, the only piece on all these four discs which is distinguished by more than a generic title, has a positively Baxian atmosphere which expands deliciously; but there are many other items worthy of attention for one reason or another.

One wonders moreover how many more early Daniel Jones scores await rediscovery. The fourth of his 1939 Five pieces for orchestra seems almost a rejoinder to the satire of Dylan Thomas, suggesting a drunken ramble around Swansea with scabrous trombone glissandi and sudden lurches from one theme to another. Back in December 2012 the BBC National Orchestra of Wales gave the work in concert for the first time since their 1951 première. Attending that performance, and reviewing it for the Seen and Heard section of this site, I expressed the opinion that “one hopes that it will not be another sixty years before we hear these pieces again.” Well, a recording would be nice, as indeed would be an investigation of his chamber music. More works may remain undiscovered in the Aberystwyth archives.

In the meantime let us be truly thankful and grateful for the investigative work of Martin Jones and Adrian Farmer who have unearthed these gems and brought them to our attention. And especially to the indefatigable Martin Jones, whose exploits in the field of rare and unknown piano music have produced so many other revelations over the years. His performances here, as indeed we would expect, have life, engagement and agility; it is clear that the composer himself must have been no mean shakes as a pianist in his younger years, but even he cannot have expected such a demonstration of skill and prowess as we find time and again on these discs. The recorded sound too, as we would also expect from the Wyastone Leys studio, is excellent. The carefully considered layout between discs is admirable, with the larger works separated by miniatures to produce an order suitable for continuous listening without fatigue. And the presentation – a sixteen-page booklet packed with invaluable and indeed unique information – is all that one could wish for. Daniel Jones enthusiasts, primed with the symphonies and string quartets, need not hesitate for a second. Those who simply enjoy good piano playing of most enjoyable music should not be left far behind.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank

Prelude in D minor (1933)
Prelude in C major (1934)
Prelude in D major (1934)
Academic Suite [Suite No 6] (1934)
Three Old Pieces (1934)
Capriccio in E major (1934)
Divertimento (1931-35)
Four Preludes (?1936)
Two Concert Studies (1936)
Suite No 8 in B-flat major (1936)
Three Caprices (1937)
Fantasia in B (1937)
Fantasia in E-flat (1938)
Sonata No 6 in C-sharp minor (1939)
Legend (1941)
Thema con variazioni in D flat (1941)
Romance in G minor (1943)
Sonatina in A minor (1943)
Fantasia in E-flat minor (1944)
Theme, Variations and Fugue in C-sharp minor (1945)
Lento malinconico (1949)

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