Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Andre Watts In Liszt

On Tuesday night, my parents and Joshua and I went to Saint Paul to hear pianist Andre Watts in recital at the Ordway Center. Watts’s Twin Cities appearance, sponsored by The Schubert Club, was devoted to the music of Franz Liszt. The program Watts offered local audiences was identical to the all-Liszt program he has been playing throughout the country since the beginning of the year.

Watts is a natural pianist, with a beautiful and refined technique. His hands and arms are “placed” naturally and gracefully at all times; his upper body remains erect and relaxed while he is at the keyboard; his finger work is superb. Watts was clearly the beneficiary of excellent basic instruction when he was a child. It was a pleasure to observe him in action, because one may no longer assume that pianists possess classic technique, as we observed only a few nights ago when we saw and heard Jeremy Denk come to grief in the music of Beethoven in the very same hall.

While Watts is a commanding pianist, I am not confident that Watts is a commanding musician. He is a fine but perhaps not considerable interpreter of mainstream piano literature. In a career nearing the half-century mark, Watts has never asserted unique authority in the music of any particular composer or period (although he has devoted much time and attention to Schubert and Liszt in the last two decades). Watts plays a broad range of repertory, and he plays it well—but he plays none of it memorably.

The music of Liszt is not important to me. I very seldom listen to Liszt, although I happen to like and admire the tone poems for orchestra—remaining fully aware that they are, by and large, problematic works. I even enjoy the tone poem, Festklänge (a work Robert Craft has singled out as one of the worst compositions ever penned by a major composer), although I realize that the piece is free of content.

The piano music of Liszt is another matter. On the whole, I am indifferent, although some of the late pieces are, admittedly, fascinating. The merits and demerits of Liszt’s piano compositions have been debated endlessly for well over a century, and I am familiar with all the arguments—and I remain largely uninterested in the arguments, and largely uninterested in the music.

One fact I have always found odd: Pierre Boulez, of all persons, performed a great deal of Liszt in his early years as a conductor. In the early 1970s, Boulez even devoted an entire season at the New York Philharmonic to an exploration of Liszt (Boulez has since dropped Liszt from his repertory).

Contrary to my expectations, I enjoyed Watts’s recital. Watts tended to overplay, and he did a bit of showboating, but I enjoyed the recital because I enjoyed the music.

Watts began with the familiar Concert Etude No. 3 (“Un Suspiro”), a warm-up both for the pianist and for the audience. Watts continued with an excerpt from Années de pèlerinage, troisième année, the beautiful Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este.

The Sonata In B Minor concluded the first half of the program. Watts held my full attention in this much-performed work, something I did not anticipate—and which I held in high regard.

The second half of the recital was even better. Watts began with five late pieces, all gems—Bagatelle Ohne Tonart; Nuages Gris; En Rêve; La Lugubre Gondola II (which American composer John Adams has arranged for orchestra); and Schlaflos! Frage Und Antwort—and concluded with three show-stoppers: the Etude No. 2 from Six Grand Etudes After Paganini; the Transcendental Etude No. 10; and the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13. All were handsomely if not quite brilliantly played, and I can imagine only half a dozen living pianists that might be superior in this repertory (starting with Pollini and Kissin).

I was not bored for one minute all night, either with Liszt or with Watts.

That renders the concert a great success in my eyes.

(My parents and Josh, however, were less impressed than I. Perhaps I experienced an odd night on which I was somehow susceptible to succumbing to Liszt.)

In the days before the concert, we had been prepared for a cancellation. Watts has cancelled several recitals this year on short notice, including one recital only a week or two prior to his appearance in Saint Paul. On Tuesday afternoon, my mother confirmed that the recital would proceed as scheduled—and my father confirmed that Watts, indeed, was in town.

Without such confirmations, we would not have left home.


  1. I attended the concert as well and was quite impressed. When thinking of the great living pianists Watts has never come to mind. His ability to perform this difficult program so superbly means that I will have to now add him to my list. I agree that there are only a handful of pianists that could have performed this program so well.

    I also enjoyed his encore. Do you know what it was? Someone near me thought it might be another etude.

  2. The encore was the Mephisto Waltz No. 4, in its original, unfinished version (the composer left it incomplete at his death, and that is how Watts played it).

    The various completions, by different hands, are not good.

  3. Not a big fan of works completed by others. For instasnce, my enjoyment of Mozart's Requiem is significantly impaired by my knowledge of the extent to which it was completed by others.

  4. You know, I, too, dislike the Mozart Requiem. It begins well, but quickly peters out.

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  6. Mr. Watts was given, in St. Paul, the choice of 2 pianos. The newer one, he said, "Had no character." The older one had character, but as he started the concert, there was a vibration or buzzing from the left side that could be heard to the balcony. He said, "Then, some of the lower notes went out of tune."
    I said, "I could hear that. It must have been distracting."
    He said, "The upper notes were out of tune, too. But I can't blame the piano."
    All in all, I enjoyed the concert very much, and thought he has prepared a great program. But I'm not a perfectionist any more; I'm simply grateful to watch a skilled musician bring music to life, live and in a nice hall.