Andre Watts provided a packed house at the Kennedy Center last night with a preview of some works from the virtuoso recital he will perform on PBS' "Live From Lincoln Center" a week from Wednesday night. One does not remember him in finer form.
It was a model program. Schubert was represented by his most blissfully benign sonata, the Op. 120 (D. 664). The Chopin was the great B-flat minor Sonata, Op. 35 -- the "Funeral March" sonata. As usual on a Watts program, there were three little Scarlatti sonatas. And there was a profusion of Debussy, the suites "Pour le Piano" and "Estampes" as well as "L'Isle Joyeuse" -- a dazzling array of tonal color.
Watts displayed a remarkable combination of digital accuracy and interpretive flair. He is one of those amazing pianists whose command of the notes is practically flawless, but whose playing has none of the unrelenting heartlessness that sometimes accompanies such prowess. Watts is a remarkable colorist, a pianist whose pedaling is so precise that it almost is taken for granted. The result is a stunning range of sonorities, but it never comes at the cost of digital clarity.
That sonic dimension was most conspicuous in the impressionist washes of sound in the Debussy, which made up the entire second half of the program. There were those exquisitely placed high notes in "Soire'e dans Grenade," which was played with captivating seductiveness. There were those ravishing arpeggios right at the end of "Pagodes," the massive chords in the Pre'lude and the dazzling flood of virtuosity at the end of "L'Isle Joyeuse." Speed is certainly never a problem when Watts chooses to turn it on. On the other hand, though, he can be masterful when he chooses to play a work very slowly, as in the encore Chopin e'tude
The Schubert sonata was performed with a little less heart-on-the-sleeve than is sometimes heard, with the cantabile melodies slightly understated, but never dry.
Watts has spectacularly realized the promise that was suggested when he attained instant stardom at 16 on nationwide television with Leonard Bernstein in 1963.