Margery McDuffie Whatley

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Phil’s Classical Reviews, Review of Piano Gems

“Piano Gems,” Haydn, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Gershwin, Poulenc, Liszt, Rubinstein – Margery McDuffie Whatley (ACA Digital)

Margery McDuffie Whatley, much esteemed as a gifted teacher as well as superb pianist, is currently on the faculty of the Birmingham Southern College Conservatory of Fine and Performing Arts. In this album, she displays her prowess in a wide range of piano styles and periods. She opens with Franz Joseph Haydn’s Piano Sonata No. 50 in C Major. This delightful work in which Haydn makes use of staccato and marcato throughout, was written at the time of his second sojourn in London, and was styled to suit the characteristics of the new English pianos that had a heavier sound, one that lent itself to a grander stye than he had previously cultivated, with treble notes that tended to resonate even after the damper pedal had been applied. Haydn accordingly indicates an open pedal in several places in the first movement. I don’t know how closely Margery follows this admonition on the modern Steinway D on which she performs, but the resulting sound has a wonderful clarity. There’s also a good deal of musical joking, for which Haydn was famous, including “wrong notes” that are not really flubs at all, as well as rolled chords, frequent passages in parallel thirds, and increased use of extreme upper and lower registers that tends to have a humorous effect. There are also moments of unexpected warmth that give this sonata more heart than one might have expected in a work with so many innovations. The artist follows with the Berceuse, Op 57 and the Three Ecossaises, Op 72, No. 3, by Frédéric Chopin. The former, a lullaby, makes much of the gentle rocking motion of a left-hand arpeggio while the right-hand melody sings a song of sweetness and warmth that is not as naïve as one might imagine. The Ecossaise was originally a Scottish folk dance in 2/4 that had made its way into the parlors of the European bourgeoisie, where it was admired for its infectious up-beat rhythm. The first écossaise is particularly forward-looking, with a “stride” in the left hand and a syncopated melody in the right. Felix Mendelssohn’s Fantasy in F-sharp minor, Op. 28, is subtitled Sonate écossaise, and is actually a highly imaginative work with features of both a fantasy and a sonata in three continuous movements. As the word écossaise will suggest, it contains elements of the original Scottish folk dance, including its irrepressible bounding rhythm, and a good many other elements. George Gershwin comes next, in “novelty” arrangements of his songs Fascinating Rhythm, ‘S Wonderful, and I Got Rhythm. With their frequent use of cross-rhythms, syncopations, rippling arpeggios and “stride” style, they were pitched towards good pianists who wanted something more than just a simple straightforward arrangement – and did they get it! Franz Liszt’s Au bord d’une source (Beside a Spring) combines an innocent melody with an underlying accompaniment whose deceptive, irresistible flow will challenge the technique of any pianist less adept than Margery McDuffie Whatley. For lack of space, I haven’t said anything about the three excellent Novelettes by Francis Poulenc or the colorful and virtuosic Valse-Caprice by Anton Rubinstein. I leave them for you to come across yourselves in your own voyages of discovery!

~ Phil Muse (from Atlanta Audio Club, Sept 2019)