Weekend whirlwind, final round: Andre Watts at Shriver Hall

This being the Liszt bicentennial year, it's not surprising that pianists should devote recitals to his music, or that there would be two such recitals in the DC/Baltimore area over the weekend. It's also not surprising that Evgeny Kissin's performance Saturday afternoon at the Kennedy Center would be an awfully hard act to follow.

Stepping in for an indisposed Nelson Freire, Andre Watts offered his homage to Liszt Sunday evening for the Shriver Hall Concert Series. (It was my fourth concert in 48 hours; all of them involved pianists, as it turned out.)  

Maybe if I didn't still have Kissin's sound and style still so fresh in my head I would found Watts' playing more satisfying. But I still suspect I would have wished for a greater variety of tonal shading, more technical polish, more interesting approaches to phrasing.

That said, I was, as always, taken with ...

the visceral way Watts approached the music. He gave a big, hearty performance, especially in the B minor Sonata, which the pianist dove into as if determined to find every ounce of drama. He extracted it, all right, but left subtler aspects unexplored.

There wasn't quite enough shimmer to "Les Jeux d'eau a la Villa d'Este" or sparkle in the "La Chasse" Paganini Etude, and too much clang in the F minor Transcendental Etude.

Far more effective to my ears was the pianist's delivery of some short, adventurous pieces from the 1880s, when the elderly Liszt was dipping into uncharted harmonic waters way ahead of his time. Watts shaped these gems, including "Nuages gris" and "La Lugubre Gondola," with great sensitivity and eloquence, giving poetic weight to the unexpected turns of phrase.

The pianist's affinity for Liszt famously launched his career at the age of 16. Today, at 64, Watts remains a formidable advocate for the composer, as his impassioned account of the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13 underlined. Whatever reservations I had about some aspects of the playing, the intensity and commitment behind could not have been more evident.

FILE PHOTO (by Steve J. Sherman)

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