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Overturning a Critical Ear

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
12/05/1999 -  
Johann Sebastian Bach/trans. Watts: Chorale Prelude "Ich ruf' zu dir"
Domenico Scarlatti: Sonata in F Minor, L. 187
Franz Schubert: Three Moments Musicaux
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata # 23 "Appassionata"
Franz Liszt: Five Late Piano Pieces
Frederic Chopin: Sonata # 2

André Watts (piano)

A casual acquaintance of the legendary pianist Josef Hofmann once commented how difficult it must be for him to perform so masterfully with his small hands. "My dear lady", Hofmann replied, "thankfully one does not use one's hands to play the piano." Fortunately for André Watts, his heart and mind shine through during his performances and leave an impression of lasting musicianship long after the shortcomings of his hands are forgotten. What is this strange phenomenon which allows Mr. Watts to play so sloppily and yet be adored by both public and critics? There is some sort of necromancy here for even though I readily acknowledge the many wrong notes that I heard this afternoon, I still come away with the impression that this was indeed a satisfying recital.

Watts is clearly a child of the media, a McLuhan pianist launched by television when he was only sixteen years old and one who has played his entire career before a large broadcast public. His endearing qualities are instantly ascertainable and everyone seems to be rooting for him in his quixotic battle with the formidable keyboard, quite obviously the bane of his existence even as he exploits it to make his living. One must accept if one listens to Andre Watts that there will be only the suggestion of the music and that many mistakes will befall the ear of the listener during Mr. Watts' journeys into the spiritual meanings of his chosen works. Technically this man is certainly below par. His touch is too heavy and his accuracy questionable. And yet he is such an adventurous risk taker that the crowd is in his corner from the first.

Take the Beethoven, for example. Watts began with the first few measures played intensively, even brilliantly, a build-up to tension very carefully and emotionally constructed. However, the first giant arpeggio and we were assaulted with a Walpurgisnacht of dissonance not even remotely resembling the printed page. When the big multinote outburst finally comes in the first movement, one can only cringe along with the pianist as so many clunkers are heard. And yet, there is a sense of the architecture of the piece that is not granted to too many of the so-called "greats". Watts understands this music; he just can't play it very well. And here's the amazing part: I don't really care! Somehow seeing and hearing this man strive to communicate the depths of the Beethovenian emotion is almost enough to satisfy the hunger for art in me. It is as if Watts is not a pianist at all but rather a performance artist, part actor, part dancer, part creator, and in some small part pianist. This is a bizarre combination and one that disturbs my critical objectivity and yet it works. The crowd loves him as he attempts to tame these mighty pieces and, even though the auditory evidence is flawed, the totality of the experience is, in its own way, viscerally and intellectually satisfying.

Watts is all over the map. The performance of the Liszt pieces was actually quite impressive, particularly the ultra-modern Nuages gris and the sorrowful La lugubre gondola II. The Chopin was simply awful, so many wrong notes as to destroy any illusion that this was great art and his trick of playing the miniscule fourth movement flawlessly as if to make us forget the other three just didn't work. But overall we were with this man-child as he tried to do the impossible and, even though he mostly failed, we were uplifted by the effort.

The two encores were actually the best of the lot. A Chopin Nocturne and the overture to Bernstein's Candide ("The Entertainer" might have been a better choice) were very well played and left the crowd in a frenzy of enthusiasm. In a different mood I would call this type of superficial performance technique charlatanism, but somehow Watts makes us all feel charitable (witness my restraint in not making even one of the dozens of puns that I could have made on his surname). It is as if your own child is up on that stage. Somehow you listen with a different set of criteria and, as a result, you enjoy the performance immensely This man is just one of nature's noblemen and all of us wanted him to do well so much that, in the end, that is exactly what he did.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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