The recital presented by pianist Andre Watts to close the first season of the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Recital Series was impressive and disappointing at the same time, for different reasons. Judging from his performance at the Winspear Opera House on Monday, the prodigious pianisism and technical brilliance for which he has rightly been celebrated from his headline-making debut (at age 16 in 1963) remains undimmed. If anything, he added impressive strength to his technique and to this performance. He also showed a daring willingness to take chances that lent some added excitement.
His program was unremarkable to the point of amusement. It looked like the “required” repertoire recitals for a doctorate candidate in any university. (Second-degree recitals are supposed to be more creative.) Start with the baroque, include some Mozart and Beethoven, have some Chopin, add an exotic favor with some Debussy and end with some finger-busting Liszt.
Nothing from a living composer, not even something from the 20th century (the Debussy was finished in 1903, but that hardly counts). Not even something out-of-the-ordinary or even something less performed by these composers made an appearance.
However, while all this was regrettable, what was more disappointing was how similar an approach he took to everything in this historical recital. All of it was well-played, some of it brilliantly. But the huge difference between the performance practices of playing Scarlatti, Debussy, Beethoven, Liszt and Mozart was averaged into an exciting and impressive musical purée.
This is not to say that Watts’ performance was less than stellar. His steely, nimble fingers astounded all evening. Right from the start, with the outer two of the opening Scarlatti sonatas, he set a very fast pace. Likewise, the fast movements of Beethoven’s D major Sonata (Op. 10, No. 3) were technical wonders. His fingers wanted to move faster, and occasionally they got away from him and took off on their own, but it was electrifying nonetheless.
Claude Debussy’s Estampes, a suite of three evocative and atmospheric piece pieces, put the accent more on “piano pieces” than the “evocative” or “atmospheric” part of that description. On the other hand, hearing them as virtuoso works instead of the more usual fuzzy and over-perfumed interpretations brought a muscularity that cast an original light on the suite. Likewise, he took a more egalitarian approach to three Chopin Études (No. 7, C-sharp minor, Op. 25; No. 9, F minor, Op. 10; and No. 1, A-flat, Op. 25).
The Liszt selections were the highlight of the program. The works of Liszt are the mainstay of the virtuoso pianist and mastery of the octave runs and bewildering technical demands is a starting point for a major career. Thus, Watts let it fly and electrified the house with the last, the Transcendental Étude, which is the most difficult (and showy) of the three. His performance was at least three levels above his younger challengers.
The entire program renewed the opinion that Watts is an exceptional pianist blessed with stellar gifts that have been honed to an international level by hard work and perseverance. But if you are going to present a recital covering such a wide range of musical styles and eras, you have to have something you passionately want say about the differences.
» The video at the top was shot at the Winspear on the day of the concert, using Google Glass.