American pianist André Watts returned to Lincoln Center last week to play four concerts with the New York Philharmonic, performing Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No.2 with Slovakian conductor Juraj Valcuha.
Most performers play the first, bell-like chords of this concerto with the utmost solemnity, but as always, Watts starts out unassumingly; a few casual and quiet chords as if he's just seeing how the piano feels. But by the ninth and last chord, the curtains have opened to reveal a magnificent scene and the orchestra joins him with a velvety texture of sound while the eighth notes seem to spill from the piano like jewels from a treasure chest.
Thirty-six-year-old Valcuha, a new face at the Philharmonic, managed the orchestra with a restrained but firm hand and provided a steady if slightly lean accompaniment to Watts' rich piano-playing.
Watts' Rachmaninoff is less a Rachmaninoff of vast barren steppes, darkness and snow than a Rachmaninoff whose abundant, romantic musical language makes him one of the most beloved composers everywhere. It is neither an overtly emotional gushing style, nor Rachmaninoff's own surprisingly sparse austerity. He has a generosity and opulence that we associate with times of the past and admire. Economy is not on Watts' agenda -- he plays unstintingly, every little passage crafted with love and attention. His tones are warm and gleam like burnished gold instead of cool stainless steel. Yes, you could call him somewhat old-fashioned -- most pianists nowadays (or, to be less vague, after digital recording became mainstream) seem to play with crystal clarity and over-polished focus, but he is neither outdated nor not appreciated -- the hall was full for all four concerts (December5, 6, 8 and 11), and the audience responded with a standing ovation and thunderous applause the moment he finished the finale with rousing grandeur.
We were glad to have Watts back in town playing for us -- while he has more or less called New York home for the past few decades, he is constantly on tour, and has also picked Indiana as his second home base -- he has been teaching at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University since 2004 and his last performance in New York City was a year ago. According to the New York Philharmonic, the concert on December 6th marked his 100th concert with the orchestra ("I would have thought it was more," the pianist remarked) -- if a hundred seems like a lot, consider that the 66-year-old Watts has had a very active concert career since he was 16. January 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the Glenn Gould/Leonard Bernstein concert -- the concert that propelled him to superstar fame when he stood in for an ailing Glenn Gould at the last minute and performed the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1. The audience, far from being disappointed that they couldn't hear the legendary Gould, was thrilled with his teenaged replacement.
These were the last concerts of the year for him (happy holidays!) and after the New Year, Watts resumes his busy concert schedule with several performances with the Oregon Symphony (January 12, 13 and 14) playing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.5 Emperor. While he does not seem to be booked for any performances in New York City in the near future, hopefully he comes back soon -- perhaps with a recital of Schubert, a composer particularly close to his heart.