On Tax Day, April 15, Seattle music lovers may well have pondered an eternal verity: the certainty of death, taxes — and excellent performances from André Watts. The pianist, who drew a large and responsive audience to Meany Theater for a President’s Piano Series recital, made it clear that audiences can still depend on him for playing of immense power, technical finesse, and imaginative artistry.
The 67-year-old Watts, winner of several international prizes over the course of a career that was launched in his teens, played a classic and comprehensive program that started with Scarlatti, Mozart, and Beethoven, going on to Debussy, Chopin, and Liszt. Watts has a remarkable stylistic range, capable of the biggest and most grandiose technical feats, and also the most gossamer, evanescent effects that belie the firepower for which he is famous.
The opening Scarlatti set which, like the Liszt works that concluded the program, involved a lot of hand-crossing and leaps up and down the keyboard was muscular and athletic as well as graceful and delicate. There was always the sense of steel beneath those dainty melodies, however. This was not your garden-variety Scarlatti; it was more like … Scarlatti meets Liszt and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau? Yes, that was Watts’ own baritone voice underlying a lot of the Scarlatti (especially the third sonata), not precisely singing, but vocalizing all the same. The vocalizing popped up intermittently in the rest of the program, and was much more pronounced than in Watts’ previous visits to Seattle.
Mozart (the sublimely wistful Rondo in A Minor) and Beethoven (an eloquent reading of the Op. 10 No. 3 Sonata) followed, and by the conclusion of the recital’s first half, the audience was already on its feet for a standing ovation.
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After intermission came three colorful, beautifully finished sets: Debussy’s evocative “Estampes,” three Chopin Etudes, and three demanding Liszt pieces. The Debussy set was full of elegant surfaces, with subtle effects and textures, and also plenty of muscle (as well as a little bit of interpretive choreography); the Chopin Etudes (Nos. 7, 9, and 1) ranged from tragically wistful to assertive and high-energy. The Liszt set, music for which Watts is particularly known, was dazzling in terms of sheer dexterity and the uncanny evenness of touch that are two of the pianist’s stocks-in-trade. The seldom-heard “La Lugubre Gondola” (No. 2) unfolded in all its strange beauty; the concert etude “La Sospiro” (a favorite of the late humorist/pianist Victor Borge, who actually played it pretty well, though not this well) emerged in streams of effortless-sounding arpeggios. And the Transcendental Etude No. 10, a formidable technical challenge, was somehow made to sound almost easy.
Watts is doing a little less touring these days, though his piano prowess is as mighty as ever. Perhaps there are no more worlds to conquer; in any case, Watts certainly gave his Seattle audience plenty of reasons to forget income-tax deadlines and revel in the beauty of great keyboard playing.
Melinda Bargreen also reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.