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Daniel JONES (1912-1993)
Symphony No 2 (1950) [43:24]
Symphony No 11 ‘In Memoriam George Froom Tyler’ (1983) [18:45]
BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra/Bryden Thomson
rec. BBC Cardiff, UK, 1990
LYRITA SRCD364 [62:07]

Back in 1912, when Daniel Jones was born, it was pretty well mandatory if you wanted to establish yourself as a composer of any significance, to excel in one of two fields – opera or symphony, or even better, both. Of course, you’ll find exceptions, but it’s a general rule that persisted right up to the 1970s. Nowadays, not many composers write numbered symphonies, though quite a few disguise them with poetic or descriptive titles – Nicholas Maw’s ‘Odyssey’ for example.

No such concerns for Daniel Jones, though. He composed twelve (or thirteen, depending how you look at it) symphonies between 1945 and 1985, as well as an enormous amount of other music. He first became widely known in the 1950s as the composer of the music for Dylan Thomas’s play ‘Under Milk Wood’; he was a childhood friend of Thomas’s, and as well as writing poems together with him, he features in Thomas’s short story, ‘The Fight’.

He was a brilliant scholar and linguist, writing extensively about aesthetics, and serving as a cryptographer and decoder at Bletchley Park during the war. His symphonic music reflects that fierce intellectual power, together with a strong sense of architecture and dramatic contrast. All articles about Jones’s music will tell you that they are each based on a different note of the chromatic scale – i.e. all twelve white and black notes’ as it were throughout the octave. That doesn’t mean to say that they are rooted in a particular key, simply that they have a tonal centre, added to which, that tonal centre shifts frequently during the work. However, it’s hard to find out what those central notes are for each of the symphonies. All I can tell you, from listening rather closely, is that of these two works, the one, No 2, centres around A natural, while No 11 seems to have E flat as its centre of gravity.

The two symphonies on this disc are at opposite ends of his output, though, for me, the composer’s voice is clearly identifiable in both. No 2 of 1950 is more than twice the length of the No 11, and consists of four movements of similar length. Listening to it, and trying to find a point of reference, I was put in mind of some of the major mid-20th century figures – Paul Hindemith, perhaps, and Arthur Honegger, both composers with gritty, dissonant symphonic voices. The first movement is also reminiscent of Mahler in the strenuously martial character of its tuttis. That character is sustained throughout, despite some quieter moments of delicate scoring.

The Lento begins with austere harmonies in the woodwind, succeeded by passages in the strings of quiet intensity. This is an impressively sustained movement, with an underlying feeling of unease, often brought about by the use of the brass and percussion. The Allegro scherzando is explosive and rhythmically jagged, and has a striking central trio, with a theme that hints at a folk-like character, but is treated with rather brutal dissonances.

The finale begins thoughtfully, with horn and oboe solos, before developing episodically, yet seeming to head purposefully towards a resolution of some kind. Does it fulfil that aim? I’m not sure; the final pages return to the strenuous mood of the first movement, so that the goal is a return rather than a discovery.

Thomson and the BBC Welsh SO give an impressive performance, committed, concentrated, and with much fine individual and ensemble playing. Jones’s scoring is sometimes rather blatant, with overuse of the cymbals in particular. But we should remember that this is a relatively early work, for Jones didn’t really gain momentum as a composer until his late twenties.

No 11, running for just over eighteen minutes and with a key centre of E-flat, is headed ‘In Memoriam George Froom Tyler’, a close friend of Jones’s, who had been Director of the Swansea Festival, and responsible for championing the music of Jones and other Welsh composers. I’ve struggled to find out more about Tyler, all that I can say being that his death seems to have been sudden and unexpected.

That suddenness seems to play a part in the brevity of Symphony No 11. A mere ninety seconds long, the second movement, a light and mischievous Capriccioso, stops almost in mid-phrase; the strings take up the yearning Elegiaco theme of the third movement, a startling change of mood. Does this reflect the circumstances of the symphony’s composition? It certainly seems to express powerfully the idea of ‘In the midst of life, we are in death’.

The finale is more objective, but does conclude with a sense of valediction, the final full orchestra chord fading away, until just the two flutes are left with an E-flat and a G. The complete work is just eighteen minutes long, but is, I believe, a much more convincing symphonic whole than the second symphony, despite the latter’s many excellent aspects. For one thing, the scoring is more expert and more varied, benefiting from many years of experience (even though Jones remains, perhaps, a little too fond of those cymbals!).

It is great that Lyrita are issuing these original BBC recordings. Even though the sound is sometimes a little boxy, the audio generally is more than acceptable, and Thomson and his orchestra give honest, thoroughly prepared performances. Well worth your time.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

Previous review: Brian Wilson

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