Margery McDuffie Whatley


Fanfare Magazine, Review of Piano Gems by Jerry Dubins

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 likes to mix things up. This is now her third album I’m reviewing, and like the previous two, which juxtaposed composers ranging from Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven to Debussy, Ravel, Griffes, and Gershwin, this new release introduces three more composers to Whatley’s list that weren’t on it before—Mendelssohn, Anton Rubinstein, and Poulenc. So, let me start there.

The composition date of Mendelssohn’s “Scottish Sonata” Fantasy in F♯ Minor isn’t known for sure, but the authorities who research these things seem to have settled on 1828 as a good bet. If true, it would mean that Mendelssohn composed the piece the year before he set foot in Scotland for his walking tour of the country and his mal voyage to the Hebridean island of Staffa, an adventure that inspired the “Scottish” Symphony and “Fingal’s Cave” Overture. Mendelssohn was not the only composer who found inspiration in Scottish folklore and the country’s rugged landscape and stormy seacoast. Beethoven and Schubert before him, and Schumann, Brahms, and Bruch after him did as well, but Mendelssohn, as far as we know, was the only one of them who actually visited Scotland in more than just his imagination.

When Mendelssohn revised the Fantasy in 1833 and published it the following year, it appeared in print without the “Écossaise” subtitle, suggesting that the composer felt the work could stand on its own as a three-movement sonata without reliance on an extra-musical subtext. In total, the piece lasts just over 14 minutes, but it’s divided into three self-contained movements, each with its own tempo marking, its own distinct thematic material, and a clear beginning and end; yet Whatley’s CD assigns the work a single track on the disc, as if it were in one continuous movement. That doesn’t impinge, however, upon Whatley’s performance of what is surely one of Mendelssohn’s more brilliant, virtuosic pieces. Her first movement, marked Con moto agitato, is a real orage.

Only the first two of Poulenc’s Three Novelettes are related by birth, having been composed one after the other in 1928 and 1929, originally published together, and cataloged as FP 47. The Third Novelette came 30 years later in 1959, was published separately, and carries a catalog number of FP 173. Nonetheless, all three make for a satisfying triptych and are often played together. The First Novelette begins with an Alberti-type figure in the bass and a dulcet melody over it that will make you wonder if they weren’t dictated to Poulenc by Mozart. But it only lasts a couple of bars before Poulenc passes through a time tunnel and emerges on the other side of it in the lap of Debussy. It’s fascinating to hear how one morphs into the other, touching on everything in between, in 25 seconds. But Poulenc isn’t done. He next moves on to a passage in Bach-like counterpoint, followed by a courtly minuet with some passing dissonances and strange modulations that only Poulenc could write, and then, back through time tunnel, now in the opposite direction, from Debussy back to Mozart. What a gorgeous piece this is! The Second Novelette is pure juiced-up, jazzed-up music hall Poulenc, while the Third Novelette of so many years later is a sweeping Romantic ballad with a glance back over its shoulder at the late piano pieces of Brahms. Poulenc based the piece on the theme from Manuel de Falla’s El amor brujo. At only a little over two minutes, it ends much too soon.

As a pianist who, according to some, rivaled Liszt, Anton Rubinstein was one of the leading keyboard virtuosos of his day, and like all instrumentalists famed for their dazzling virtuosity, Rubinstein composed piano pieces prolifically to awe his audiences on his concert tours. But Rubinstein was much more than a grandstanding showman. He was a composer of no mean ability, who put his pen to work writing symphonies, a large number of chamber works, and even over a dozen operas. Sadly, much of his music has been forgotten, but perhaps Rubinstein’s most lasting legacy is the founding of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, which graduated its first student in 1865, a young man named Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Rubinstein composed the Valse-Caprice in 1870, and without intending to demean its musical value, I think it’s fair to say that it’s the typical virtuoso fare he’d had taken on tour with him and played to bravo-shouting audiences in concert halls and salons.

I won’t go into detail about the other items in this latest “Whatley’s Sampler” because readers familiar with the pianist’s previous albums will know that they include works by all of the other composers represented here. Readers will also know that Margery McDuffie Whatley is a pianist with a prodigious technique, and an artist of very special talent.

I cannot tell you which of these pieces she recorded one right after the other in the same session—the recording was made over two days in March 2018—but to make the transition from Haydn to Liszt, from Mendelssohn to Gershwin, and from Chopin to Poulenc, and to sound completely comfortable, stylistically idiomatic, and musically convincing in each and every one of them takes more than technical skill. It takes an artist with a keen musical intellect and the ability to intuit the essence of each of the pieces she plays, and to give each its unique voice. In this Margery McDuffie Whatley demonstrates that she is not just a pianist of prodigious technique but a musician of the highest artistry. Enthusiastically recommended.

~ Jerry Dubins (from Fanfare Magazine, July/Aug 2019)