Margery McDuffie Whatley

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Fanfare Magazine, Review of Piano Gems by Huntley Dent

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♭

One charm of this new release from Margery McDuffie Whatley lies in the pianist’s sunny disposition towards two composers, Haydn and Mendelssohn, who were innately sunny themselves, musically speaking. Whatley could hardly have found a more perfect match to her keyboard style than Haydn’s ebullient Sonata in C, whose numbering in the older Robbins Landon catalog was No. 60 (out of 62), which places it quite late in the composer’s career, 1794. That was the last year he wrote piano sonatas, and the work’s exuberance identifies it as being English in style. It was expressly written for a prominent London pianist, Therese Jansen Bartolozzi, and one can’t help but feel that the piece’s unalloyed joy expressed Haydn’s own delight when he became the toast of London in his later years.

In any event, if you had to pick one piece of music to use for your morning wakeup call, Sonata No. 60 (or 50) would never become tiresome, such is its inventiveness, wit, and inspiring cheerfulness. I mention this because Whatley has chosen her program as a display not of technique, although hers is admirably secure, but of something rarer, her ability to communicate. Although the Mendelssohn “Scottish” Sonata has a very upbeat finale, and all the Gershwin and Poulenc miniatures are indefatigable in their insouciance, Whatley just as naturally communicates the limpid tenderness of the Chopin Berceuse.

Two of the “piano gems” on the program take up almost half the total timing, the Haydn and the Mendelssohn. Whatley brings just the right touch—alert, pointed, and fleet—to the allegro movements in both. For me, the strongest part of the Mendelssohn, however, is the slow opening movement, which imitates a harp, the drone of a bagpipe, and a Scottish folk song. Mendelssohn had yet to visit Scotland when he wrote his Fantasy in F♯ Minor, but he was as romantically attached to the place as everyone else who joined in a widespread Victorian craze for all things Scottish. (This extended to wearing one’s family tartan plaid, even if it had to be concocted. I wonder if Mendelssohn received one.)

The Gershwin song arrangements bring out another aspect of Whatley’s playing, her fine rhythmic sense, which is at home in jazz-baby ditties as much as in Chopin’s delightful and rarely played three Écossaise, op. 72—they are short, simple miniatures in 2/4 time. Apparently this genre of Scottish dances was especially popular in France at the time. Despite the late opus number, these pieces date from Chopin’s youth, as nicely described by pianist Arthur Greene:

“In Warsaw, when Chopin was growing up, the social scene was extremely active, and anyone who wasn’t sick or crippled would go to dance parties almost every night. And the star of these events was usually Chopin, because he was both a great dancer himself, and he played for all of the other dancers. He would usually improvise at one of these events sitting at the piano and playing for hours, coming up with mazurkas, waltzes, and écossaises … if he really liked [one], he’d then go home and write it down.”

I wonder if Francis Poulenc picked up the unusual term “novelette” from Schumann, who used it without providing a musical definition, thereby confusing future commentators about what he had in mind. Poulenc’s Three Novelettes subtly tie into the rest of the program because the first is in a pastiche Classical style and the second is flippantly jazzy. The third, oddly enough, is based on a four-measure theme quoted directly from Falla’s El amor brujo. Whatley encompasses these stylistic changes with ease.

Au bord d’une source is the most delicate piece in Liszt’s first year of the Années de pèlerinage, which is devoted to Switzerland. But unlike the vast majority of pieces in the collection, this one isn’t about a specific place. The source in question might not even be a bubbling spring but the source of love, since Liszt had gone on his travels with his new lover, Countess Marie d’Agoult, probably to escape public censure for starting an affair with a married woman. He also personally identified the music’s key, A♭ Major, as expressive of love. Whatley does beautifully with the piece’s play of delicate tracery. Space forbids saying anything about the final selection, Anton Rubinstein’s whirling Valse-Caprice, except that it is delightful and probably owes its origins, like the Chopin dances, to a great pianist’s improvisation.

Whatley’s artist bio contains extensive reference to her teaching positions at college music departments, particularly in her native South, as well as work she has done in music administration and on professional and public boards. It’s touching to think that someone of her exceptional talent should lead a life that contains such a generous portion of service. Every reviewer at Fanfare, I imagine, along with many readers, owes a debt to music educators, the kind of patient teacher who has grown scarce in the public school system. I don’t come from a musical family, and if it weren’t for two band teachers who had total dedication and a love of music to impart, I might never have been motivated to take up what turned into a lifelong passion.

Those memories give Whatley’s performances an added dimension, but I hasten to add that the chief joy of these piano gems comes from her musicality and the gift of communication I mentioned at the outset. Good piano sound and informative notes.

~ Huntley Dent (from Fanfare Magazine, July/Aug 2019)