The revered critic Harold Schonberg wrote of André Watts in his 1987 edition of The Great Pianists, “More than most pianists of his generation, he displayed a feeling for the grand line, and his interpretations have continued to contain a controlled kind of freedom that may eventually result in making him an Old Master.” These are prophetic words from one of the most respected piano scholars of the 20th century. Watts, once the young virtuoso, is indeed well on his way to becoming the “Old Master” of his generation.

Watts opened his massive Memorial Hall program, presented by Carolina Performing Arts, with Haydn’s Sonata in C, H.XVI/48. The opening movement set the tone for the program; a melancholic nostalgia pervaded the performance. While the second movement is more upbeat, Watts managed to create a tinge of gloom by highlighting grave subtleties with the left hand, which is not ideal for the music of Haydn. He took a cartoon and transformed it into a dark comedy. He followed this work with two rondos of Mozart, K.485, in D, and K.511, in A minor. The D major was the sun peeking through the menacing clouds that would prevail throughout. It was masterfully done, if a touch too romantic for my taste, and his articulation accentuated the dance-like structure. That glimmer of sunlight was quickly dispelled by the Rondo in A minor. The piece, which is painfully romantic in nature and so well suited to Watts’ inclinations, was excruciatingly beautiful. When the main theme softly returned after the exposition, I needed no more proof that Watts should be counted among the greats of the 20th (and 21st) century. So intense were his colors and so deft his voicing that the audience would have gotten its money’s worth if the recital had ended then and there.

It did not. In fact it had only begun. Watts chose to close the first half with Schubert’s Drei Klavierstücke, D.946. It is worth mentioning that there were several programming changes that varied from the printed program. CVNC readers had the inside scoop however, as we were aware of all except one at the time that the preview was published. The only last-minute change came in the second half where he replaced Debussy’s “La Cathedrale Engloutie” with Ravel’s “Oiseaux Triste.” But, I digress; the Drei Klavierstücke (Three Piano Works) has only recently come into its own in the concert hall despite being a mammoth work that displays a wide range of technical and emotional challenges for the performer. Watts was up to the task, delivering a most focused performance and relying not only on his over-abundance of virtuosity but also on his ability to recognize and stress the poignant thematic elements. There were, however, brilliant flashes of virtuosity in the third work, Allegretto, providing a glimpse of what was to come.

There had been so many program changes at this point that Watts opened the second half by apologizing and graciously said that he would announce the works from the piano for the remainder of the recital, which continued with Luciano Berio’s “Wasserklavier.” It is no secret that some music lovers cringe at the thought of sitting through another acute modern work that is alien to the traditional musical language. In this case however, those listeners got a pleasant surprise. Berio’s work, while decidedly modern, is accessible to those who are not German composition professors steeped in twelve tone theory. The short piece was actually quite pleasing and programmatic as one could hear water in varying forms and movements. It also fit well into Watts’ gloomy program, as did the next piece, Ravels “Oiseaux Triste” (“Mournful Birds”). Watts told the audience that the piece was about two birds who wanted to fly but couldn’t for very long. They make one adventurous flutter, then return to their perch to dream about flying. The performance was brilliant because it demonstrated Watts’ability to quickly change styles. His impressionism is as good as his modernism which is as good as his classicism, a rare trait in this world of specialists.

If slow dripping water and mournful birds didn’t bring you down, the next three pieces certainly would have.. The Liszt set consisted of all late works which are, incidentally, equally despondent. The first, “La Lugubre Gondola No. 2″ is about a funeral boat that Liszt dreams is floating through the canals of Venice with the body of Richard Wagner who, in fact, died there three months later. The second, “Nuages Gris” (“Gray Clouds”) needs little explanation. Watts said that his intention with this work was to make the listener feel positively dreadful. Well done! At this point in the recital I was beginning to fear that some people may be having suicidal thoughts, but Watts continued to drive home his mournful theme with the final Liszt work, “Schlaflos, Frage und Anwort.” This piece is about a sleepless night during which the composer asks himself many questions and arrives at the spiritual crossroads of uncertainty.

The program closed with a set of three pieces by Chopin, all in minor keys. Here, as in the Liszt, Watts shone. The Etude in C-sharp minor, Op. 25/7, that opened the set was deeply nostalgic as was the Nocturne in C-sharp minor that followed. As beautiful as this concert had been though, Watts hadn’t shown us the goods, so to speak. The final work on the program did just that. Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor was played with amazing dexterity, despite a few dropped notes. In the final run, cascades of octaves in both hands were executed with deadly accuracy.

Watts has not lost a step with age and seems poised to further his career despite turning sixty this year. His energy, passion, and humanity make him unarguably one of the giants of the keyboard.

PREVIEW: André Watts to Perform in Chapel Hill on Historic Tour

Pianists face nearly insurmountable odds when it comes to building careers on the world’s concert circuit. It takes incredible talent, nerves of steel, and, usually, a lucky break. Most use one of the many piano competitions as a springboard to stardom, though only a few actually succeed, even after winning. Pianist André Watts took the road less traveled. He never won a major competition yet remains to this day one of the premiere pianists on tour.

At the age of nine, Watts debuted with the Philadelphia Orchestra, playing a Haydn concerto, but he got his real break in 1963, when Leonard Bernstein asked him to join the New York Philharmonic for a nationally-televised performance of Liszt’ s Piano Concerto in E-flat. The Young People’s Concert program on which it aired was a hit. Watts was on his way. But then something happened to expedite his career immeasurably. Two weeks after the program aired, the infamous hypochondriac Glenn Gould was scheduled to perform with Bernstein and the NYP. He canceled, and Bernstein asked the sixteen-year-old Watts to fill in. The pianist played the Liszt Concerto again, this time catching the ear of Columbia Records execs. His first album, “The Exciting Debut of André Watts,” helped him win the 1964 Grammy Award for Best New Classical Artist. Since then, he has played with elite orchestras around the world, performed recitals in the most prestigious venues, and won numerous awards for his recordings and live performances. His most recent honor was being named to the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame. During the 2006-07 season, he is celebrating his 60th birthday and the 50th anniversary of his debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Residents of the Carolinas will have the opportunity to see and hear him during this monumental tour on Friday, April 20, at 8:00 p.m., in Memorial Hall on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill.

His scheduled program includes Haydn’s Sonata No. 58 in C, H. XVI/48, and two Rondos by Mozart — in D, K.485, and in A minor, K.511. Schubert’s oft’-neglected Drei Klavierstücke, D.946, will be followed by Luciano Berio’s “Wasserklavier” (“Water Piano”), which will allow the listener to delve briefly into the twelve-tone system of one of its masters. Then come Debussy’s “La Cathédrale engloutie” and three works by Liszt: “La lugubre Gondola No. 2,” “Nuages gris,” and “Schlaflos, Frage und Antwort.” These are late works of their respective composers. Finally, the program will close with works by Chopin: the short Étude in C-sharp minor, Op. 25/7, the menacing Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. 27/1, and the monumental Ballade in G minor, Op. 23, one of the composer’ s most popular pieces. The great Vladimir Horowitz used the same piece to close his historic May 9, 1965, recital.

Listen especially for the Rondo in A minor of Mozart, of which James Friskin wrote, “Among Mozart’ s piano-forte compositions there is none more beautiful than the Rondo in A minor, nor any more finished example of his art.” The three pieces by Schubert are not as introspective as some of his other late compositions but include his signature song-like rhythm and harmony. The Berio is a jolt to the musical pallet to clear the way for romantic masters that follow.

This promises to be an historic occasion on several levels, highlighted by stunning piano repertoire.

Friday, April 20, 2007
Carolina Performing Arts presents André Watts, piano
Memorial Hall, UNC, Chapel Hill. 8:00 p.m.
For tickets, call 919/843-3333 or visit