Margery McDuffie Whatley

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Fanfare Magazine, Review of Margery McDuffie Whatley plays Bach, Haydn, Brahms and Ravel

MARGERY MCDUFFIE WHATLEY • Margery McDuffie Whatley (pn) • ACA 20076 (62:22) BACH Toccata in D, BWV 912. HAYDN Piano Sonata (No. 62) in E♭, Hob XVI:52. BRAHMS Piano Pieces (6), op. 118. RAVEL Jeux d’Eau

Pianist Margery McDuffie Whatley has come up with another unusually fascinating program of works (see review of her Mozart to Gershwinalbum elsewhere in this issue). Surely Mozart to Gershwin was no more of a leap there than Bach to Ravel is here, but on the present disc Brahms is the bridge between them. I like the fact that Whatley presents these pieces in chronological order.

Bach’s keyboard toccatas are seven in number, all dating, it’s believed, to sometime between 1708 and 1717 during his second stay in Weimar, which makes them fairly early works. Each has its own musical personality, but all share certain common compositional techniques, among which are florid, virtuosic, recitative-like passages derived from the Italian toccata tradition of Frescobaldi and forward, in combination with the German fondness for fugue and imitative counterpoint. The alternation between styles lends the toccatas a sectionalized feel that can, at worst, make them sound fitful. It’s up to the player then to integrate the disparate episodes into a unified-sounding whole, which is something Whatley accomplishes most deftly.

It has been said by pianists and critics alike that Haydn was not one of the instrument’s great masters, but ignorance being bliss, he knew not how deficient he was and merrily went about writing a passel of piano sonatas—62, I believe, is the latest official count. A handful of them have long had their well-known advocates; Horowitz, for example, frequently included a Haydn sonata in his recitals. But they’ve never really gained the kind of public popularity to earn a place in the standard performing repertoire, let alone the position of dominance held by Beethoven’s sonatas.

Whatley plays the Sonata in E♭-Major, Hob XVI:52, the last numbered in a set of three so-called “English” sonatas written in London for Theresa Jansen in 1794. For a Haydn sonata, it’s a work of unusual length, harmonic breadth, and developmental adventure. Technically, its influence on Beethoven, whose first three groundbreaking sonatas came only a year later, is palpable in terms of keyboard figuration and general style. But the dimension I personally find missing is depth. The length and breadth are there, but the music seems oddly lacking in emotional substance. It’s interesting that Haydn lived another 15 years but wrote no more piano sonatas. One wonders if, having heard Beethoven’s early essays in the form, he realized it was game over for him and that his efforts would be better spent in other areas. Whatley plays the sonata as well as I’ve heard anyone play it, so she can’t be faulted for succeeding in every way but one, which is to move me emotionally.

Brahms’s op. 118 is the composer’s penultimate opus for solo piano. In the opening paragraph, I opined that in this mixed recital Brahms was the bridge between Bach and Ravel. That statement is not as far- fetched as it might seem. Brahms’s compositional techniques look back to Bach and even earlier to the great masters of 15th- and 16th- century vocal polyphony. At the same time, Brahms’s increasing linearization of harmony and rhythm look forward, loosening the bonds of the twin taskmasters tonality and meter, and advancing the cause of harmonic freedom and rhythmic flexibility that would be taken up by the Impressionists. From Brahms’s op. 118 to Fauré, and thence to Debussy and Ravel, is not that big a leap. Whatley exhibits a great deal of sympathy for Brahms’s late-life reminiscences. Too personal and private to be salon pieces, it’s almost as if these album leaves from the composer’s final years were tailor made for another medium, the phonograph record, where they can be heard in the intimate setting of one’s own secret space. Whatley captures that sense of intimacy in some of the most sensitive playing of these pieces I know. She brings to the music the very thing it needs most yet is the most difficult to achieve, a sense of vulnerability.

Jeux d’Eau was, by Ravel’s own account, one of his favorite pieces, the one that he claimed was “at the origin of the pianistic novelties that one would notice in my work.” It was inspired by Liszt’s Les Jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este from the Troisième année of his Années de pèlerinage, and according to Ravel, was meant to evoke the noise of water and the sounds one hears in the sprays, cascades, and brooks. So effective is Whatley’s conjuring of the music’s waterworks, I’d advise a pit stop before listening to it. Another wonderful and strongly recommended release.

~ Jerry Dubins (from Fanfare Magazine, Sept/Oct 2011)