Mark Buller | 27 AUG 2019
The twenty-first century has so far not been especially kind to the recording industry, and the classical sector is no exception. And yet we can easily find ourselves overwhelmed by the sheer volume of music, with myriad options ready for every whim. Want to compare the four or five versions of Horowitz’s Carmen Variations with transcriptions of the same by later pianists? Want to hear an early Stravinsky work, lost in a cluttered conservatory for over a century and rediscovered two months ago? Want to hear a classically-trained string quartet play a clever arrangement of a Palestinian rap group? Great – with a few keystrokes you can hear it all.
Even so, there comes a point – and this is a quandary faced by record collectors and novices alike – at which we have to ask ourselves, “Do I need to own, or for that matter to listen to, more recordings of the Great Pieces by the Great Composers?” There are certainly exceptions, of course: from the spate of recent releases, I’m happy to see Michael Gielen’s new Mahler Sixth (it will be interesting to compare his two interpretations, recorded as they were some four decades apart), and Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s new Zauberflöte should be an interesting listen.
But what of albums by performers without that international superstar status? What might be lost by, say, sticking with the twenty-two terrific recordings of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in my own library, and only venturing out again if a new one is made by performers I really, really admire?
Of course, there’s plenty of value in all recordings, and we absolutely should certainly welcome new interpretations set down on record. The point here is that recordings of the Great Works really need to be programmed in such a way as to set them apart. Listeners will be inclined to purchase a new album if there’s something that makes it more than just another collection of the same repertoire.
Which brings me to Piano Gems, a new recording on ACA Digital by Margery McDuffie Whatley. The title is problematic: aside from the similarly-titled album by Liberace, the title calls to mind a grab-bag of Favorite Piano Works. Fortunately, Whatley’s repertoire choices cut deeper than the title might imply. She begins with Haydn’s sprightly Sonata in C Major (Hob. XVI No. 50) and follows it with mostly short works by Chopin, Mendelssohn, Gershwin, Poulenc, Liszt, and Anton Rubinstein.
Title aside, the program is fairly traditional. I appreciate that alongside Chopin’s evergreen Berceuse Whatley includes one of the lesser-known Ecossaises. Poulenc’s Novelettes pair nicely with three very short song transcriptions of Gershwin (the composer’s own). And I’m happy to see Rubinstein included here, as the popularity of his music has dimmed a good deal in recent decades.
What of the performances themselves? Generally, they’re fine: clean, well-articulated, carefully phrased. Whatley is at her best in the Haydn, and I’m especially taken with her nicely-voiced right-hand thirds in the exposition of the first movement. The third movement, in which the prankster side of Haydn is at the fore as the composer makes a series of “memory slips,” veering into wrong harmonic territories, could use a bit more humor, but this is a small quibble. On the other hand, Liszt’s Au bord d’une source is rather perfunctory; at Whatley’s relaxed tempo, we can tend to lose the longer lines. Liszt’s layering of warm harmonies with the glittering right-hand fountain (listen to pre-1980s Horowitz for a perfect example) can easily be lost in all the notes.
The Gershwin selections are a little clunky; there’s an effortlessness that’s just missing, unfortunately. The Poulenc Novelettes are a bit better, but again, we need a debonair breeziness in this repertoire, and it’s just not there in this recording.
I’ll end on a positive note: I did rather enjoy Whatley’s performance here of Mendelssohn’s Fantasy in F-Sharp Minor (“Sonate écossaise”), Op. 28. Here, finally, we get the effortless virtuosity that I know she has in spades – and here, furthermore, is a piece we don’t get to hear every day. Might I suggest a follow-up album contrasting the brothers Haydn with the siblings Mendelssohn? ■