Music Review : Prosaic Power in Watts Recital

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Andre Watts, who played up a cumulative number of keyboard storms at Ambassador Auditorium on Thursday, is a virtuoso who lends new meaning to the concept of nervous energy.

His fingers move faster than light. His nimble foot transforms a pedal into a riveting machine.

He acknowledges dynamic obscurities. He zooms into a piece, clutches its gut, and lets go only when he arrives at the final whomping cadence--a destination then abandoned with surprising abruptness.

He commands the resources of a great pianist. No doubt about that. But he doesn't always play like one.

In a demanding and discerning program that surveyed Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Janacek, Chopin and Liszt, he proved himself a master of extrovert prose. Introvert poetry was another matter.

His relentless brio left the listener breathless at the climax of Beethoven's "Appassionata," which closed the first half of the recital. At the end of the formal agenda, he dazzled the furies by storming through Liszt's A-minor Etude, No. 6, which happens to explore the same popular Paganini caprice appropriated in variations by Rachmaninoff and Brahms, not to mention Boris Blacher and Witold Lutoslawski.

Watts sustained a speedy air of tragic desperation in the two shattering movements that remain of Janacek's "I.X. 1905," a.k.a. "From the Street," and earned admiration for venturing this standard-repertory detour.

When six Chopin's etudes required flash, first and foremost, the pianist delivered the robust goods. When Liszt depicted a miniature hunting trip in "La chasse," Watts galloped off in a cloud of chords.

A little agitation can go a long way in an evening of solo piano playing, however, and Watts gave us a lot. Some of the agitation seemed inspired. Some of it seemed perfunctory.

Haydn's C-major Sonata, Hob. XVI:48, emerged more dutiful than charming, though one appreciated Watts' stylish idea of following its rondo finale with a Mozartean extension: the A-minor Rondo, K. 511. Here, the pianist reveled in propulsive fluidity. Too bad his emotions remained disengaged.

He approached Beethoven's "Appassionata" as if it were an intimate improvisation--a viable if hardly traditional interpretation. His impetuosity precluded any hope of dramatic expansion, however, even in the andante. The results--up to the fiery coda--were merely hectic, and almost mechanical.

One always admired Watts' bravura skills. At the same time, one longed for better evocations of Haydn's elegance, of Beethoven's nobility, Janacek's torture and Chopin's shimmering moonlight.

After a while, one wished he would just stop and smell the flowers. Repose can be a many splendored thing.

The interesting encore choices included Luciano Berio's "Wasserklavier," "Pagodes" from Debussy's "Estampes" and Edward MacDowell's Etude, Opus 46, No. 2.

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