Margery McDuffie Whatley


Fanfare Magazine, Review of Piano Gems by Colin Clarke

PIANO GEMS • Margery McDuffie Whatley (pn) • ACA 20128 (56:48)
HAYDN Piano Sonata in C, Hob XVI/50. CHOPIN Berceuse. 3 Écossaises. MENDELSSOHN Fantasy in f♯, op. 28, “Sonate Écossaise.” GERSHWIN Fascinatin’ Rhythm. ‘S Wonderful. I Got Rhythm. POULENC 3 Novelettes. LISZT Au bord d’une source. RUBINSTEIN Valse-Caprice in E♭

Discs entitled Piano Gems and the suchlike tend to be easy to pass over or dismiss as entry-level compilations, but not this one. Starting with one of Haydn’s greatest piano sonatas, we pass through Chopin both familiar and (probably) unfamiliar, via Mendelssohn (and not some of the Lieder ohne Worte, either), Gershwin song arrangements, and some Poulenc before landing on Anton Rubinstein via Liszt. Heard in its entirely it is quite a journey, and we are in capable hands. Margery McDuffie Whatley, a Steinway Artist and accomplished teacher, is a highly musical, technically superb pianist. The Haydn Sonata, a piece which was composed in London during the composer’s visit there in 1794–95, is given with a light touch and, most importantly, with a deep understanding of harmonic trajectory. The slow movement is expressive, the cantabile aspect marked and with real depth of tone. Wit and sparkle suffuse the finale, in fine partnership with crystal articulation. This is a lovely performance.

The Chopin section begins with the lovely Berceuse, and what appeals here is Whatley’s use of the sustaining pedal, sparing despite the intrinsically dreamy nature of the work and allowing the listener to truly appreciate Chopin’s linear workings. The upper register of the Steinway is perfectly prepared for the roulades; and how happily the Écossaises, op. 73/3, skip along, crisp of articulation. Ian Hobson includes them on the first volume of his Chopin cycle, immediately even brighter and brim-full of vim, and with a finer recording (slightly closer in the sound picture, too). Each piece is well under a minute; blink and you miss one.

This provides a nice link in title and territory for Mendelssohn’s F♯-Minor Fantasy, subtitled “Sonata ecossaise.” Cleverly, there is another link in Mendelssohn’s deliberate use of the sustaining pedal to create a momentary wash of sound at one point; Haydn does the same in his C-Major Sonata. Mendelssohn’s Fantasy cropped up relatively recently in Jamina Gerl’s excellent recital (Fanfare 40:4), and of course Cherkassky and Bolet loom large, but Whatley holds her head high in a reading that is wide-ranging, expressive, and sensitive.

It’s quite a leap to Gershwin, and a trilogy of fun. The first offering, Fascinatin’ Rhythm, traverses a wide range of moods within a small space, in response to which Whatley changes her emotional voice on a pinhead. ‘S Wonderful was surely played with a raised eyebrow, while I Got Rhythm emerges magnificent in its complexity, which Whatley seems deliberately to highlight.

Whatley’s real strength seems to be able to slip into a composer’s shoes as if into a pair of comfortable old slippers. So it is that her Poulenc Novelettes feel just right, full of affection and suavité in the First, angularly cheeky in the Second. Poulenc’s final Novelette is based on a theme by de Falla from El Amor Brujo. Brooding, it provides a thought-provoking link to the Liszt; Whatley’s nuanced performance makes it a highlight of the recital.

The Liszt contains the odd moment of instability, but the Anton Rubinstein Valse-Caprice is terrific fun and the perfect close, with the final measures a fine mix of abandon and accuracy. (Some time ago, APR released Paderewski’s complete Victor recordings, which included a 1928 New York gung-ho version of this, full of spirit but not always the right notes.)

The fine recording conveys all the character of Whatley’s instrument, a 1924 Steinway D, with a 2000 rebuild. Excellent booklet notes from Jeremy N. Grall complete a most satisfying release.

~ Colin Clarke (from Fanfare Magazine, July/Aug 2019)