Andre Watts Concert Review

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Andre Watts Concert Review

Post by Lance » Tue May 31, 2005 9:39 pm

Gary Lemco is a long time associate of your editor who will be presenting guest live concert and recording reviews on the Classical Music Guide on occasion. He has appeared on WQXR's "First Hearing," and writes for numerous classical music periodicals. —Editor

Audacity and Intimacy

by Gary Lemco

Veteran pianist Andre Watts played a fine recital at the Herbst Theatre, San Francisco Saturday, May 21, a program of Scarlatti, Mozart, Ravel, Ligeti, Liszt, Chopin, and Debussy, whose diversity and musicality eschewed any lingering associations of mere bravura and showmanship. What we encountered was a seasoned and thoughtful artist, a colorist who manages audacity, digital dexterity, and intimacy of romantic expression, played on a broad and even ravishing palette. By the time Watts played his one encore, Liszt’s laconic and provocative En Reve, we felt entirely satisfied in the luxuriance and abundance of Watts’ musical ideas and the natural communication he maintains with his audience.

Watts opened with two Scarlatti sonatas, in F Minor (L. 187) and A Major (L. 391), the first whose steady, slow progressions hinted at restrained anguish, perhaps owing to Watts’s free way with rubato. The A Major had those improvisatory, Spanish guitar runs and glissandi that make Scarlatti perpetually scintillating and refreshing as a keyboard experience. Some crystalline Mozart followed, the Rondo in D, K. 485 and the empfindsamkeit Rondo in A Minor, K. 511, whose chromatic variants prefigure Chopin.

If the D Major Rondo enjoyed a clear, music-box sonority, the A Minor, perhaps the world’s best-known slow rondo, gained a tragic momentum as the harmonic labyrinths and shifting accents became more intricate, more expressive, more resigned in their recollection of lost innocence. Fomr many attendees, the highlight of the evening followed, in the Drei Klavierstucke, D. 946 (1828), published posthumously, by Franz Schubert. Often regarded as impromptus in Schubert’s late style, these virile pieces allowed the alternately aggressive and lyrical facets of Watts’s pianism to shine, the fioritura often sounding like a Liszt treatment of one of Schubert’s songs. The Allegretto movement, with its uncanny section in 6/8, achieved some haunted, exalted spirituality.

The second half of Mr. Watts’s program extended his flair for color contrasts, beginning with two sections from Ravel’s Miroirs (1904), Oiseux tristes and La vallee des cloches. Adumbrating the later work of Olivier Messaien, Ravel applies swirling arpeggios and repeated notes to capture the birds’ consternation, lost in the mazes of the forest. Watts kept a tight rein on the rhythms and the balance of chords, a process he executed with equal facility in the Valley of Bells, a piece clearly indebted to Liszt’s The Bells of Geneva. Watts’s concession to modernism came in the form of five excerpts from Ligeti’s Musica ricercata (1951-1953), brief, even spasmodic pieces that honor Bartok and the Magyar, modal sensibility even as they declaim and deconstruct in brittle cacophony. Broken chords, whirling figures, displaced octaves, the pieces have a jerky, obsessive flavor more Kafka-esque than Lisztian, cross-fertilized by Webern. Yet even the three Liszt selections--Bagatelle ohne Tonart; Schlaflos, Frage und Antwort; and La lugubre gondola II--did not relax the anxious tension established in Ligeti. Instead, these late works by Liszt only deepened our intimations of mortality, with their suspending of tonal resolutions and wandering phraseology, the gondola piece’s being a kind of homage in the form of a berceuse to the passing of Richard Wagner.
The final two composers, Chopin and Debussy, took us back to a more placid world, where whatever the throes of emotion, the promise of order is kept. Chopin’s Nocturne in C# Minor, Op. 27, No. 1 and Debussy’s exotic Danse (Tarantelle styrienne) exhibited a degree of color and control quite incandescent both in the nationalized figures of Chopin, where Watts’s capacity for leggierezza shone forth; and in the Debussy, with its splicing of Italian and Austrian rhythmic impulses. The light hand, the velvet touch, the persuasive and graceful transitions and landings, all bespoke a refinement and artistry of a monumental keyboard personality in full command of the repertory he cherishes.

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