Margery McDuffie Whatley

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Fanfare Magazine, Review of Mozart to Gershwin

MOZART TO GERSHWIN • Margery McDuffie Whatley, Steven Hesla1 (pn) •
ACA 20110 (78:55)
MOZART Variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman.” BEETHOVEN Piano
Sonata No. 17 in d, “Tempest.” CHOPIN Scherzo No. 1. Nocturne in
D♭, op. 27/2. DEBUSSY Images: “Reflets dans l’Eau.” GRIFFES
Roman Sketches: “The White Peacock.” 1 GERSHWIN Rhapsody in Blue

What a delightful musical whirlwind tour this is (Beethoven “Tempest” pun intended), from Mozart’s nursery-tune classic to Gershwin’s jazz classic, with stops along the way to survey important points of interest in the development of piano composition and playing technique over two and a half centuries.

The tune to an innocent French nursery rhyme, “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman”—about a child who goes bawling to his mother because he craves sweets, and his father who won’t let him have them—was treated by Mozart to 12 variations, originally thought to have been written in 1778. It has since been redated to 1781–82, which places it in the same year as the composer’s “Haffner” Symphony (No. 35) and his opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail. The tune may be foursquare simple, but Mozart’s embroidered divisions are quite imaginative. A great idea, by the way, for turning children on to classical music is to give them a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle that, when completed, displays a picture of the first page of Mozart’s variations. They can listen to this recording of the piece by Margery McDuffie Whatley over and over again while they’re working on the puzzle and driving you stark raving mad.

By then you should be in just the right frame of mind for the next piece on the disc, Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata. Like many another of the composer’s nicknamed works, Beethoven had nothing to do with the fanciful title, nor was Shakespeare’s play of the same title the work’s inspiration. It’s not the first of Beethoven’s piano sonatas to exhibit the Sturm und Drang element; the last movement of its close contemporary, the “Moonlight,” is surely a stormy affair. Nor is the “Tempest” the first of the sonatas to begin with a slow introduction; the “Pathétique,” another turbulent piece, did the slow intro thing four years earlier. What is possibly unique about the “Tempest” may be, if I’m not mistaken, that it’s the first of Beethoven’s sonatas in which all three movements are in sonata form.

Frankly, for an artist I’d not previously heard of, Whatley’s “Tempest” took me quite by surprise. Whatley, who is sister to violinist Robert McDuffie, is a phenomenally accomplished pianist. Her articulation of those pesky hand crossings in the first movement is perfectly coordinated, and her rhythmic drive is physical in its impact. This is unquestionably a category 5 storm, with a calm Adagio respite at its center, and a regained gale force wind in its finale. To Whatley’s Chopin Scherzo my reaction is, wow! This lady can play the piano. Her technique seems to know no bounds. But it’s her sensitivity to the music’s mercurial mood changes and her natural rhythmic gear shifts that lend this reading a great deal of both drama and sweeping emotional power. With equal feeling, Whatley turns to one of Chopin’s magical nocturnes, a rhapsody in melancholy of such intense beauty one wishes it would never end.

Chopin’s D♭-dreamscape dissolves into Debussy’s D♭-aquascape “Reflets dans l’Eau,” the first number in the Set 1 triptych from the composer’s Images for piano. For the Impressionists, watercolor was not just a painting technique, water was color. Whatley beautifully captures the piece’s rippling effects and the glints of light playing on the water’s ever-changing surfaces.

For the first few measures, you might not immediately realize that the Debussy has ended and Griffes’s “The White Peacock” has begun. Just as French Impressionism swam the Channel and made itself at home among the English pastoralists, it jumped the Pond and found a following of sorts among American composers such as MacDowell, Beach, Carpenter, Collins, and the present Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884– 1920). Probably Griffes’s best-known work, “The White Peacock” is the first number in a set of four pieces for solo piano titled Roman Sketches. Its theme isn’t water, but a lush woodland landscape musically imagined from a poem by William Sharp.

The history of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is well documented. Gershwin began work on the piece in January 1924, in response to a commission from dance-band leader Paul Whiteman. Gershwin wrote the Rhapsody out for two pianos knowing it was Whiteman’s intent to introduce the piece at a concert with his jazz band and that the orchestration would be turned over to Whiteman’s then arranger, Ferde Grofé. Unfortunately, the concert was not recorded, so we don’t know what the February 12 premiere sounded like because Gershwin is reported to have improvised a number of passages from the keyboard, not fully writing out the piano part until after the performance. Grofé would orchestrate the piece twice again, in 1926 and 1942. What is today Gershwin’s best-known and most beloved work was not well received by leading critics at the time. The New York Tribune’s Lawrence Gilman called it “trite, feeble, and vapid.” Pitts Sanborn described it as “formless, empty, and meaningless.” But the New York Times’s Olin Downes opined that “the composition shows extraordinary talent,” and Leonard Bernstein, in an article in the Atlantic Monthly, waxed rhapsodic over the piece.

Listening to Margery McDuffie Whatley’s performance, it’s hard to understand how anyone could not have been enthralled by Gershwin’s masterpiece. She is joined by Steven Hesla for a tremendously exciting performance of Gershwin’s original version of the piece for two pianos.

Elsewhere in this issue, I review Whatley’s recital CD of works by Bach, Haydn, Brahms, and Ravel, and I must say that not only does the present disc come with the strongest possible recommendation, but the pianist’s imaginatively varied programming makes both albums a joy to listen to.

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