Jones Chamber Music Lyrita

Kenneth V. Jones (1924-2020)
Chamber Music
Soloists from the London Mozart Players
rec. 2020/23, St John’s Upper Norwood, London; Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, UK
Lyrita SRCD434 [66]

Kenneth V. Jones and I go back a long, if limited, way. Many years ago, I discovered a mimeographed score of one of his songs in a famous second-hand music shop in London. At first, I thought I had found a holograph, but guessed that at £1 it was merely a copy. The name stuck in my mind. Some years later, I was watching one of the iconic British Transport Films Down to Sussex on video (remember them?). This was a remarkable portrayal of outstanding places and events to visit: Brighton, Chanctonbury Ring, Goodwood Races, polo at Cowdray Park, and Glyndebourne. Jones wrote the score; in fact, he scored fourteen films in this series. Those I have seen impressed me by their lyricism and craftmanship. So, it was with considerable anticipation that I listened to this remarkable disc. I am beholden to Paul Conway for his outstanding introduction to the composer, and his discussion of the repertoire.

The liner notes give a decent biographical introduction to Kenneth V. Jones. Another source is the British Music Society Journal article on MusicWeb International, here, written about 15 years before his death.

Jones was born in Bletchley on 14 May 1924. He attended the King’s School in Canterbury. During the Second World War he completed an RAF-sponsored course in music and philosophy at Queen’s College, Oxford. There followed four years in the service with Short Sunderland flying boats in Africa and Asia. From 1947, he studied at the Royal College of Music under R.O. Morris, Bernard Stevens and Gordon Jacob.

Highlights of his career include founding and being the first conductor of the Wimbledon Symphony Orchestra. His compositions cover many genres, including the above-mentioned film scores and incidental music for plays and television. I understand that concert works include three Sinfonias for orchestra, a Concerto for strings, and an another for oboe.

Jones’s aesthetic could be categorised as neo-classical, never avant-garde, but it produces a bittersweet harmonic and melodic sound world. One advertising text suggests that “the language is familiar – Françaix and Shostakovich come to mind – engaging, playful and immediately graspable”. I would add Tippett, Rawsthorne and Bartók as useful stylistic markers.

The first work in this outstanding programme is the Quintet for piano and string quartet. A review in The Times on 7 April 1967 suggested that the style was not “strikingly original with its echoes of Bartók and Tippett”. On a positive note, however, A.E.P. wrote that despite a rough-and-ready performance, it was well constructed and “formally succinct”. This is especially so in the final movement which revisits material from the Allegro and the Adagio. Nearly sixty years on, listeners will worry less about influences, and more about effect and integrity. This striking Quintet impresses with its energy, vigour and, on occasion, introversion. The piano is busy all the time but is not overbearing. It presents a constructive dialogue between all the instruments, never allowing one to dominate the proceedings.

The Wind Quintet No.2, commissioned by UNESCO, was premiered three years after completion, at a studio broadcast on the BBC Third Programme on 14 December 1955. The first public performance was in January 1956. The Quintet has four short movements. What I enjoyed most was the luminous sound of the instruments, whether it was in “fanfare like gestures” of the opening Lento, the “crisp, clipped progress” of the Vigoroso or the “liquid fluency” of the slow movement. The finale is a delight, with hunting horns bidding farewell. A commentator in Daily Telegraph on 31 January 1956 accurately caught the work’s mood: it  showed “a feeling for the medium which lends itself […] to the jocular, the pastoral and the aphoristic”.

I enjoy hearing what can be termed “grade music”, such as the small character pieces by Alec Rowley, Felix Swinstead or Thomas Dunhill. I guess it comes down to the fact that it is good to hear tunes created for the tyro, played by professionals. The London Mozart Players give six of the numbers from Jones’s collection devised for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. Written for piano violin or cello and piano, they vary from Grade 1 to Grade 5. All are well-wrought and – no matter how technically simple – never patronising in their composition and performance. The piece that caught my ear/eye was the lovely-sounding The Day Dawns on the Breakwater.

Quinquifid is both an unfamiliar word and a new musical title for me. It means “five columns” or, as the booklet suggests, “that which is cleft into five parts”. This is what Jones has done with this brass quintet. It is the most recent piece on the disc. The five contrasting sections are linked by short cadenzas. Various dispositions are presented, including the witty, the ruminative and the confident. Brass-playing techniques include flutter-tongue and muted trumpet. The middle Jiocoso – Andante lyrico suggests a smoochy smoke-filled room, whilst the Duet – Shadow Play, the briefest movement, provides respectable counterpoint between the two trumpets. Surely a work of this quality should be in the repertoire of many wind quintets.

Jones wrote his Piano Sonata whilst he was still a student at the Royal College of Music. In three concise but not too short movements, it has been described as “a bright clear-cut composition, more a sonatina than a full-scale composition” (Andrew Porter, Radio Times 27 February 1953). I would argue about this definition. For one thing, it lasts more than twelve minutes, and there is a range of emotion wider than in a didactic sonatina. Typically, the music is angular, but a romantic strain emerges, especially in one of the episodes in the vibrant Rondo burlesque. This contrasts with the meditative Adagio molto sostenuto. The first movement is the most acerbic of the three, with “heavily accented, repeated chords” and wild scotch-snaps. Overall, this is a creative, satisfying and technically proficient piece for solo piano.

The imaginative Two Contrasts for solo cello were dedicated to Jones’s son’s distinguished cello teacher, Margaret Moncreiff. Energico is witty and full of life, whilst Andante espressivo is thoughtful and lyrical. Both end with a fetching pizzicato.

Jones’s String Quartet No.1 has one movement divided into two unequal parts. The work opens with a short Lento espressivo, which soon builds up momentum, before the Allegro moderato takes over. Paul Conway suggests that Bartók is an inspiration, as are the quartets by Elizabeth Maconchy (who had then reached her sixth). Stylistically, Jones insisted that the “acerbic, gritty character of the music” is in “direct contrast to the pre-Second World War English Pastoral style”. That said, 74 years on, there is nothing too stark about this quartet. Conway correctly suggests that there is “a certain folklike quality to the writing, not least in its punchy syncopations, that roots the score in a distinctly British landscape”. For me, it is one of the most enjoyable quartets that I have heard in a long time. It deserves its place in the recital room.

I have already mentioned the outstanding liner notes, but there are a couple of points. There is no CV of the London Mozart Players, although this is easy to find online. And in the track listing several compositions are marked as undated, even if  the programme notes do give dates.

The performances, always fully engaged and sympathetic, are aided by an excellent recording.

This is a resourceful programme which introduces us to an unfairly neglected British musician. Jones’s music is always interesting, approachable and enjoyable. I would most definitely welcome a subsequent disc of his work.

John France

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1-3. Quintet for piano and string quartet, Op.26 (1967)
4-7. Wind Quintet No.2, Op.2 (1952)
8-13. From Easy Pieces for piano and violin or cello (1971):
The Day Dawns on the breakwater (cello)
Valley Song (violin)
The Moorhen’s Tap Dance (cello)
Semi-Siesta (violin)
Dancing Puppet (violin)
Morning Song (cello)
14-18. Quinquifid for brass quintet (1980)
19-21. Piano Sonata, Op.4 (1950)
22-23. Two Contrasts for solo cello (1971)
24-25. String Quartet No.1, Op.6 (1950)