Duncan: 20th Century Express - Light Orchestral Music / Penny, Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra

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Allied to his melodic gifts, early experiences as a sound and balance engineer equipped Trevor Duncan with a profound understanding of instrumental color. During the 1950s he composed music that became instantly recognizable in the light music tradition. The Girl from Corsica was heard almost daily on British radio and the theme tune for the BBC TV series Dr Finlay’s Casebook remains one of his most celebrated works (it’s part of A Little Suite, heard here in full). Duncan was an inspiration for other composers, and was capable of sensuous romance, breezy scene setting, delicate tone poems and irresistible glamour.


The meticulous craft and polish that characterizes the composer’s music is on ample display in this collection, to say nothing of his ability to produce high-quality music according to very specific demands and timeframes.

The essence of what makes Duncan’s music so loveable can be heard in his tripartite scores Children in the Park from 1954 and A Little Suite from 1959. Their external breeziness belies their sophistication of orchestration and form. The central “Lullaby” movement of the latter work, for example, is a masterclass in miniature on how to subtly play with instrumental color: harp and celesta (with the latter instrument enjoying a brief, but gorgeous solo) limn a winsomely pastoral melody to telling effect as it is passed from plummy clarinets to sleek strings and back. What sounds straightforward on paper is utterly magical in performance.

Similar exquisite calibrations of instrumental color are heard in the well-known “20th Century Express,” “High Heels,” and “The Girl From Corsica,” each of the latter two also carrying beguiling hints of David Rose’s “Holiday for Strings” and Hugo Winterhalter’s hit version of “Song of the Barefoot Contessa” respectively. Duncan’s personal touches in harmony and instrumental color, however, ensure that neither sound derivative.

As the popularity of light music withered against the rise of rock in the 1960s, Duncan turned increasingly to works that were more introspective and serious, yet no less touched by his unique sparkle. A preview of this stylistic turn is heard in his St. Boniface Down (An Idyll) from 1956, the longest single work on this album. It opens with chant-like figure on horns and cellos, followed by a descending five-note response in the woodwinds (based on a verse by Paul Verlaine) that is repeated a number of times, which then leads into an eerie passage for solo horn and celesta that almost sounds as if it were right out of Shostakovich. The atmosphere sketched is one of endless grays, an evocative aural depiction of resignation. Little surprise, then, that Duncan was inspired by his unhappiness that resulted from an unrequited infatuation.

The latest work on this collection is the “Serenade (In the Style of Schubert),” one of the movements from his 1967 Maestro Variations. Although the accompaniment somewhat recalls the Austrian composer’s “An die Musik,” it does not really sound much like him otherwise. (In fact, the music reminded me more of Rossini’s Péchés de vieillesse!) It is, nevertheless, an enjoyable and tuneful movement that makes one eager to hear the rest of the work it is extracted from.

While the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra sometimes sound a trifle flat-footed in their other recordings in this series (e.g. the Ronald Binge volume), here they sound relaxed, playing with dapper phrasing and timing under the direction of Andrew Penny. The production by Murray Khouri and Hubert Geschwandtner is satisfyingly full and deep. The excellent liner notes are by David Ades, whose death in 2015 robbed the world of a veritable walking encyclopedia of light and easy-listening music.

At the Naxos price, this collection of Duncan’s music is too good to pass up.

--MusicWeb International (Néstor Castiglione)

Product Description:

  • Release Date: June 24, 2022

  • Catalog Number: 8555192

  • UPC: 747313519224

  • Label: Naxos

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Period: 20th Century

  • Composer: Trevor Duncan

  • Conductor: Andrew Penny

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra