[Read online: http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/n/nxs59286b.php ]
Vernon Duke (Vladimir Dukelsky)
* Piano Concerto (orch. Dunn) (1923)
* Cello Concerto (1945)
* Homage to Boston (Suite for Piano Solo)
Scott Dunn, piano
Sam Magill, cello
Russian Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitry Yablonsky
Naxos 8.559286 Total Time: 57:30
Summary for the Busy Executive: Pleasant.
If Vernon Duke had written nothing more than "I Like the Likes of You,"
"Autumn in New York," and the score for Cabin in the Sky, he'd still sit
permanently in my pantheon. However, he had, in essence, two careers -
one on Broadway and in Hollywood, and the other in the concert hall.
As a 12-year-old boy with the name Vladimir Alexandrovich Dukelsky, he
entered the Kiev Conservatory, where he studied with Reinhold Gliere,
among others. However, a fellow student and friend - Sergei Prokofieff
- impressed him more and exerted greater influence on his compositional
In 1920, Dukelsky and his family escaped from the Soviet Union (it took
the Red Army a while to secure the southern part of the country) and by
1922, ended up in New York by way of Constantinople. Arthur Rubinstein
had heard some of Duke's music and asked for a piano concerto "not too
cerebral." He got his wish. In 1923-1924, Dukelsky composed one and
played a two-piano version which Rubinstein liked and told him to
orchestrate. What with one thing and another (including a successful
Diaghilev commission), it never got orchestrated, and Rubinstein never
In the meantime, Dukelsky had to make a living and began writing for
Broadway revues. Unlike such emigres as Grosz, Hollaender, and even
Weill, Duke mastered the American jazz-based popular song fairly quickly.
He seems to have actually listened to jazz before he wrote. Many of his
songs actually became jazz standards. Nevertheless, he continued with
concert work. For this bifurcated career, George Gershwin (a great
admirer) suggested he adopt the name Vernon Duke for his pop stuff and
keep his original name for his concert work. This Duke did until 1955,
when as a U.S. citizen for nearly twenty years, he dropped "Dukelsky"
Duke's final years were bitter and sad. In the Sixties, he wrote an
article titled "The Deification of Stravinsky" for a fledgling musical
journal. In it, he slammed Stravinsky's serial music, especially The
Flood and what he considered the blind critical adulation and mostly
clueless media hype over anything from the master's pen. Stravinsky and
(mainly) Craft fired back a reply written in acid and flame called "A
Cure for V.D." in which, I believe, they didn't mention Duke by name
once but kept referring to a mediocre composer with compositions like
"Oktoberfest in Oswego" and "Manana in Mexico," about whom Stravinsky
and Diaghilev had shared a good, rueful laugh over Diaghilev's "mistake"
over his commission for a Dukelsky ballet. As bad as the reply was, the
reaction of Duke's fellow musicians was even worse. They wrote angry
letters to the journal and cancelled their subscriptions. The journal
folded after its second issue.
To me, Duke's essay smacked of disappointment and envy. After all, his
works received nowhere near the number of performances as Stravinsky's,
and his late music pretty much sank without so much as little bubbles
popping on the surface. I don't know if he even composed anything after
I wish I could report that I found these works neglected masterpieces.
After all, it gives me a thrill when I think I've discovered one. These
works are well-made and diverting, but little more. Listeners forgot
them, not because Stravinsky was a glory hound, but because they weren't
strong enough to hang on. The piano concerto, in one continuous go,
seems held together with duct tape and spit. When Duke runs out of gas
with one idea, he drops it and goes on to something else, without any
development that I can hear. You could of course say the same thing
about much of Poulenc, but Poulenc has genius themes. Duke doesn't come
close. To give a pretty hefty favorable opinion, however, I should say
that Gershwin admired one of the lyrical ideas and kept asking Duke to
play it at parties. As far as I'm concerned, however, not one theme
comes up to anything in Gershwin's own piano concerto. Furthermore, you
hear echoes of Prokofiev and Stravinsky without getting either a coalescence
into something individual or something as good as the models.
The cello concerto of 1945, written for Piatigorsky, has altogether
bigger ambitions. In three formal movements, it nevertheless suffers
from the same formal problems as the piano concerto, although to a lesser
degree. The best part is formally the simplest: the slow second movement,
very beautiful in a quiet way. The finale has arresting moments, although
for the life of me I can't recall what they are. Duke has added Gershwin
and Shostakovich to his gallery of models - to me, a function of the
times, when both composers' works enjoyed booms. Indeed, American
publishers, at any rate, were asking composers to write "like Gershwin."
The Homage to Boston, a suite of miniatures for solo piano, runs pleasantly
enough, like a new Chevy. However, it really doesn't stay with you all
that long. A miniature needs a distinctive idea that, in lieu of intricate
development, keeps the listener's interest. I heard this suite five
times and forgot it each time. I can't tell you one theme. If I heard
it again, I doubt I could tell you what it was or who wrote it.
Still, we don't listen with our entire souls all the time. Now and then,
we need something that occasionally prods us for a few seconds before
blending comfortably back into the wallpaper. The performances are fine.
Dunn's orchestration for the piano concerto seems as good as Duke's for
the cello concerto.
By the way, don't take my word for any of this. Check out Robert Cummings's
review on http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/n/nxs59286a.php for a
far more favorable opinion than mine.
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