Changing his program is one of the rituals in which Andre Watts indulges before every performance. Making his first recital appearance in Costa Mesa over the weekend, the American pianist did it again.
The final (and third) agenda, heard Friday night in Segerstrom Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, could not surprise anyone familiar with this artist. It contained well-known Watts signature pieces such as Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasy and Debussy’s “La Plus que lente,” “Danse,” and “L’Isle joyeuse.”
It also offered at least one other work some of us have not heard Watts play before, the B-flat-minor Sonata by Chopin. That turned out to be a high point of this splendid pianistic evening.
To the question of how well Watts is playing these days, after reportedly suffering a shoulder injury in recent months, one can only say: He has sustained such injuries before; he seems to come back well from them, and he is playing today as authoritatively as ever. Maybe more so.
Of course, the 44-year-old musician, who has been visiting Southern California for more than a quarter-century, retains all his quirks. He is a creature of moods, and sometimes his moods do not coincide exactly with the music at hand. He aims for spontaneity, a risky goal at best, and the results can be variable. Still, one will never fall asleep at a Watts performance.
Over the years, Watts has proved an inconsistently convincing Chopin player. The “Funeral March” Sonata, however, seemed to bring out his best: his sense of the long and inexorable musical line, his feeling for contrasts and lyricism, and the kaleidoscopic detailing in which he excels.
This reading had sweep, strength, songfulness and delicacy, all in the right proportions. Consequently, it emerged apparently definitive. The repose in the crucial middle portion of the Funeral March, for instance, approached the seraphic in its impact on the listener.
Most of the rest reached a similar plateau. A large, unusually coughey audience was treated to an impassioned reiteration of the “Wanderer” Fantasy, and colorful, variegated and touching reconstructions of the three Debussy pieces. “La Plus que lente,” in particular, has seldom seemed so seductive.
The Schubertian warmup provided fewer thrills. Both the E-flat-minor “Klavierstuck” and the Sonata in A, Opus 120 came out at once willful and glib. The more things change. . . .