Andre Watts stopped in town to give two recitals (October 7 and 8) in the Newmark theatre. These concerts opened the Portland Piano International’s recital series, which began 28 years ago as the Portland State recital series and changed its name to PPI in 2005. PPI has added Monday evenings to its schedule (last year was Sunday afternoons only), and the appearance of a popular artist like Watts, helped to make sure that both concerts would come close to selling out.
Watts devoted the first half of the program to works by Scarlati, Mozart, and Schubert. He began with two sonatas (L. 187 and L. 422) by Scarlati, and his playing was clear and crisp – perhaps a little too brittle over all. It was as if he wanted to separate the notes distinctly so that they would sound more like a harpsichord.
The sound grew more expansive with Watt’s performance of two rondos by Mozart, the A minor (K. 511) and the D major (K. 485). Watts poignantly brought out the melancholy theme of the first rondo, and the second rondo sparkled, but in a sensible way.
With Schubert’s “Three Piano Pieces (D. 946), Watts got closer to the full-blown romantic sound that seems closer to his heart. The Schubert pieces became a spirited romp that Watts plays as well as anyone on the planet.
Watts changed his program for the second half. He sat down at the piano and turned to the audience, and announced what he would like to abandon the all-Chopin selections that were listed in and instead play works by Ravel, Debussy, Liszt, and Chopin.
He performed Ravel’s “Oiseaux tristes” (“Sad Birds”) with lots of dynamic range and color. This short, impressionistic piece became the hit of the evening, because the impression Watts created was so vivid and inspiring.
In his performance of Debussy’s “Pagodas,” Watts created an oriental landscape that was powerful and beautiful. He also unleashed two mystical and dreamlike treasures by Liszt: “La Lugubre gondoa” (The lugubrious gondola”) and “Schlaflos, Frage und Antwort” (“Sleepless, Question and Answer”).
Watts then gave forceful yet fluid interpretations of works by Chopin, including two Etudes and the Ballade No. 1 in G minor. The audience erupted in applause, and Watts returned for two encores. I think that the second was one of Liszt’s works.
One thing about Watt’s style of playing it that he doesn’t waste any time. As soon as he sits down at the piano, he takes less than five seconds to begin a piece. The man has a tremendous amount of focus, and it showed in this concert.