Margery McDuffie Whatley


Fanfare Magazine, Review of Piano Gems by Dave Saemann

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♭

Pianist Margery McDuffie Whatley is the sister of the distinguished violinist Robert McDuffie, whom I’ve heard in fine concert performances of the Beethoven and Prokofiev Second concertos. You might recall that brother and sister Gil and Orli Shaham are violinist and pianist respectively, too. Whatley, however, is a superb pianist in her own right, considerably better than Orli Shaham. In fact, I would say that Whatley is every bit as much an artist as her more famous brother. Her attack at the keyboard is refined and punctilious, producing a variegated sound that she adapts skillfully to each composer. On Piano Gems, she is greatly assisted by a 1924 Steinway piano, rebuilt in 2000. It has a clear and somewhat mellow sound, perfectly suited to Whatley’s avoidance of banging and histrionics. She is a notably sensible pianist, realizing each work with an understanding that is very much from the inside out. Nothing in her sound ever is imposed on the music, like a circus routine. Before writing this paragraph, I listened to Piano Gems five times, so great was the pleasure it gave me. It is an ingenious and beautifully designed program, starting in a fairly conventional way with Haydn, but then leading us in directions that are as taste piquing as they are pleasurable. Whatley’s range as an artist is highly impressive. Her Haydn and Gershwin are as good as anyone’s I’ve ever heard, but every selection on her program is revealing and imbued with a personal touch. If you are tired of hearing famous kids banging their way through the concerto repertoire, Piano Gems will give you a respite in which music is lucid and fresh like good spring water.

Should you be familiar with the homogenized Haydn sonata recordings of Emanuel Ax, considered in some quarters a sine qua non, you really need to hear Whatley. She plays a late sonata in the best Classical style, but always emphasizing a technique borrowed from Muzio Clementi here, or a lyrical impulse derived from Mozart there. With Whatley’s beautiful elucidation of Haydn’s textures, she provides insight into where early Beethoven was coming from. She plays Chopin’s Berceuse with a kaleidoscopic sense of its colors and rhythms, building excitement with the subtlest sleight-of-hand. I never have heard a better rendition of Chopin’s Écossaises; I’m reminded of Claudio Arrau’s assertion that practicing modern dance is vital to creating a pianist’s sensibility. I’ll bet Whatley’s a good dancer. Her interpretations of Gershwin’s songs are as fine as Earl Wild’s. She plays them with a great feeling of swing and jazz colors, yet she also demonstrates how the piano arrangements lean heavily on the sound of the important pianist-composers, particularly Rachmaninoff. Francis Poulenc’s Novelettes receive renditions far from the mere angularity most soloists find in his piano works. Poulenc said one must not analyze his music, but just love it—and Whatley certainly does. Anton Rubinstein’s Valse-Caprice is a wonderful novelty to end the program. It has been suggested that the work originated as an improvisation, and Whatley’s account possesses a verve which conveys the excitement of someone creating by the seat of his pants.

The CD’s sound engineering is excellent. I am delighted to report that copious and informed program notes are included, a practice being abandoned by the major labels, who apparently believe that everyone who purchases their recordings is stupid. Piano Gems, even in the darkness of the Mendelssohn Fantasy, is a delightful and uplifting experience. I only hope that Margery McDuffie Whatley hooks up with an agent who can give her the bookings she deserves. Highly recommended.

~ Dave Saemann (from Fanfare Magazine, July/Aug 2019)