Confidence, electricity, and a unique sound. Pianist Andr'e Watts offers startling technical feats without gimmicks

If one quality could sum up Andr'e Watts, it is confidence: He exudes and inspires it. When he first showed up on the nationally televised Young People's Concerts in 1963, he had it -- and he was only 16. At his 20th-anniversary recital two seasons ago, he manifested it. And it was the single element that helped make this keyboard master's recent televised (and simulcast) recital from Avery Fisher Hall so memorable.

Even by his own high standards, Mr. Watts played exceptionally well that Wednesday night. And this with the knowledge that those cameras were sending everything out to a wide audience as it happened. Then there was the added pressure of having to be witty, sparkling, and in form in all his backstage moments, where host Andr'e Previn was in waiting. Thus, Mr. Watts did not have even half a moment to relax out of the public or TV eye. But this never showed on stage.

And when a string snapped in the first Gershwin prelude, he merely finished, begged the audience's indulgence until the miscreant string was removed, and then finished the program (with that note rather sourly tuned).

All this comes as no surprise to Watts followers. And Watts comes as no surprise to the musically expectant. For one has never really turned to Andr'e Watts for startling insights, profundities, or contextual rethinkings. Rather, one has turned to Watts for excitement, for electrifying technical feats (albeit not merely self-serving ones), and for a distinctive, unique sound. One has watched Watts grow as a consummate keyboardist who can call forth an increasingly dazzling array of timbres, hues, and dynamics. And, blessedly in these times, Watts is free of gimmicks and trickery.

You would never have caught Watts coming out onto a concert stage in leather pants and string ties. In fact, when he played a Friday afternoon New York Philharmonic concert in a previous season, he was in morning coat and striped trousers. The elegance and tidiness of his appearance reflect his musical profile as well. If there's a run to play at high velocity, it will be neatly, astoundingly, but tastefully managed. If there is a passage that requires awesome strength, he will thunder it out, but never crudely, never less than respectfully.

He knows how to get an audience wildly excited, as any great virtuoso must. He revels in his ability to make all that finger work happen without apparent effort. Yes, at times he miscalculates a climactic passage, as he did in the Chopin sonata on the televised recital. But it is a miscalcuation based on his views of the piece, not just something thrown in to make an arbitrary point.

He has grown as an artist since his recordings of the Brahms B-flat major Piano Concerto or the Chopin Second. It is heard in the fine-tuning of his abilities to conjure amazing sounds from a Steinway -- from ravishing, barely audible, yet fully rounded pianissimos to chandelier-rattling fortissimos, and all the in-betweens.

What strikes me as odd about this pianist who sells out everywhere he goes, who drives audiences to their feet night after night, is just how small his CBS catalog of performances really is. Not long ago, as startlingly propulsive a performance of Liszt's 10th Transcendental 'Etude as he gave in this recital would have found his record company clamoring for him to record all 12.

Listening to some of his records again reminded me anew of just how special his playing has always been and remains. The new CBS Masterworks ``Live From Tokyo,'' which I have heard in its compact-disc format, may not be the most inventive program, but the Scarlatti crackles with energy, the Debussy is very poetic, the two Brahms intermezzi have a beguiling tonal richness. Throughout, a good sense of the occasion pervades.

Of his earlier records, that Brahms concerto positively crackles with fire and energy. His Liszt and Chopin concertos are poised yet propulsive, played with depth of tone and depth of feeling. And from the sound of this recent recital, those depths are still being plumbed.

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