The mystery of Andre Watts

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The mystery of Andre Watts

Post by Ricordanza » Sat Feb 08, 2014 5:40 pm

Fifty-one years ago, Andre Watts burst upon the national music scene at age 16 (he had previously made his debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra at age 9) when he was the soloist with the New York Philharmonic in one of Leonard Bernstein’s televised Young People’s concerts. One week later, he substituted for none other than Glenn Gould as a soloist with the Philharmonic, playing Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Since that time, he has gone on to achieve what has been, by most standards, a very successful and sustained concert career, appearing with all of the leading orchestras, giving solo recitals around the world, and, in the pre-download era, producing some of the best sellers among classical recordings. But somehow, he has been considered by critics and others somewhere in that second tier of pianists. Why?

My experiences with him have always been positive. I recall a very satisfying solo recital at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia in the 1990’s. His televised performance of a concerto (if I recall correctly, Rachmaninoff 2) with the Philadelphia Orchestra in that same decade was outstanding. And one of his LPs, which I still enjoy to this day, features an electric performance of the solo piano version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

On Tuesday evening, February 4, he presented a solo recital under the auspices of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. Positive is not a sufficient adjective to describe my reaction, as well as that of the audience.

The first half of the recital proceeded in traditional chronological fashion: Scarlatti, Mozart and Beethoven. I should add that Watts was also dressed traditionally, in white tie and tails, a rarity these days among recitalists. The Scarlatti sonatas are miniatures, not the three or four movement works in the form used so successfully by Mozart and Beethoven. Watts offered three—L. 422 in D Minor, L. 187 in F Minor, and L. 391 in A Major—and the fast, slow, fast tempi of these three works, in effect, formed the three movements of a sonata. While his playing was a bit tentative the first piece, he delivered an engaging rendition of these gems. Watts’ performance of Mozart’s Rondo in A Minor, K. 511, was even better. It’s one of Mozart’s finest keyboard works, and I can only describe Watts’ performance as just right. Beethoven’s Sonata in D Major, Op. 10, No. 3, may be “early” Beethoven, chronologically speaking, but it’s a far distance from Haydn and Mozart and doesn’t fit neatly into any category. It is a startlingly original piece, and the lengthy slow movement is one of the great marvels of this composer’s piano works. Watts’ performance was everything one could ask for, and then some.

After intermission, the three pieces from Debussy’s EstampesPagodes, La soirée dans Grenade, and Jardins sous la pluie—were rendered with just the right blend of delicate touch and muscularity when needed. Watts followed this set with three Etudes by Chopin, concluding with an absolutely gorgeous rendition of the “Aeolian Harp” Etude, Op. 25, No. 1.

And then there was Liszt. La Lugubre Gondola No. 2 is one of Liszt’s late period experiments testing the boundaries of tonality. Interesting and well played, but not as entertaining as Watts’ outstanding performances of the next two pieces: the intricate and delicate passagework of the concert etude Un Sospiro, and the fiery and passionate Transcendental Etude No. 10.

A concertgoer seated near me commented before the recital that the second half was more of what we expect as Watts’ “element.” That may be a true statement about audience expectations, but it fails to capture the essential fact that, from Scarlatti through Liszt, Watts was totally “in his element” or rather, in the composer’s element. It was hard for me to identify a highlight of the recital—and that’s a good thing, since every segment was a highlight. So I don’t have an answer to the mystery posed at the beginning about Watts’ ranking among pianists. I can only conclude that for me, this recital confirmed his placement in my top tier.

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Re: The mystery of Andre Watts

Post by John F » Sat Feb 08, 2014 10:02 pm

You're right, André Watts hasn't been much in the news in recent years - I don't remember when he last played a New York recital and am not aware of any recent recordings, though that may just be me. Whether this is because of his own choice or less demand, I wouldn't know. He continues to appear in concertos with the New York Philharmonic every 3-4 years, most recently in 2012 playing Rachmaninoff 2.
John Francis

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