American composer Vernon Duke was also publicly known by his given name as Vladimir Dukelsky, particularly in connection with his concert music and poetry. It is more common for posterity to refer to the composer as "Vernon Duke" whether in writing classical music or popular; the standards he wrote for musicals, such as "April in Paris" and "Autumn in New York" have such a strong jazz feel some have even developed the impression that Duke had to be an African-American! Actually, Duke was Russian-born, and in a purely cultural sense, this student of Glière and close friend to Prokofiev never got very far from his Russian roots in his concert music, though there, too, a trace of the telltale influence of Tin Pan Alley can be detected. Not very many of Duke's classical works have been circulated before the release of Naxos American Classics' Vernon Duke: Piano Concerto, which includes two major pieces and a charming piano suite, Homage to Boston (1945), none of which have ever appeared on recordings before. The neo-classic Concerto in C minor (1923) has at least one good reason why not, as for some reason Duke never orchestrated the work and here it is presented in an orchestration by Scott Dunn, who also performs the solo piano part and is heard in the suite. He clearly has an affinity for Duke's piano idiom, which seems to fall right into the middle of Duke's two favorite composers, Gershwin and Prokofiev. The Cello Concerto (1945) was written for Gregor Piatigorsky and listeners familiar with the kinds of gestures Piatigorsky favored -- for example, those in Lukas Foss' Capriccio for Cello and Piano -- will find some commonality with that approach, not to mention a nod to Stravinsky here and there. Cellist Sam Magill once studied with Piatigorsky's pupil Lawrence Lesser, and he understands Piatigorsky's sweeping, lurching, leaping, and frequent use of pizzicato; in this recording, Magill almost seems to resurrect the ghost of the great man himself. Dmitry Yablonsky's handling of the Russian Philharmonic is somewhat independent minded and brassy in both concerti, but for that matter so are Duke's scores, in which the ripieno tends not to support the soloists so much as run a kind of interference against them.
Naxos' recording was made in a studio at KULTURA, formerly belonging to Soviet TV and radio; it is a very loud space, which works great for the concerti, but is a little distant for the solo piano music. Nevertheless, these works represent Duke's efforts in classical music at its peak and are well performed to boot. For anyone interested in the concert side of Vernon Duke, Naxos American Classics' Vernon Duke: Piano Concerto should prove better than sufficient and for those new to his concert music -- which would be most listeners -- it may well be revelatory.