Thursday, June 30, 2016

André Watts: The Complete Columbia Album Collection is a 12-CD Box Set From Sony Which Documents the Debut and Lifetime Achievements of a Piano Superstar

A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man

By Jed Distler

"André Watts' complete recordings for Columbia Masterworks could easily be titled after James Joyce's first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. They essentially cover his formative years, from his celebrated debut with the New York Philharmonic at sixteen up through the youthful maturity of the thirty-four-year-old pianist's 1980 Tokyo concerts."

Jed Distler recalls that during his childhood piano studies his mother held André Watts up as an example of what Distler might hope to accomplish as well if he practiced faithfully.  He writes: "However, inspiration didn't quite take hold until I was brought to hear Watts in person for the first time during the spring of 1968.  I was eleven.  Up until then I had not heard a professional piano recital. By then I knew Watts from familiar television appearances and records, yet seeing him up close and in person was altogether different.  The pianist had a glow about him.  His natural poise, and quiet command grabbed my attention. Even his concert tails impressed me.  There were no ostentatious gestures or heroics, but I'd never heard a piano sound as full, even in softer selections.

"After the concert, the ushers led me backstage, and I shook Mr. Watts' hand.  With a long line of well-wishers ahead, Watts still took extra time to ask me questions about my studies, encourage me, and wish me luck. I asked if I could see how far he could stretch his hands.  Watts graciously spread out his long fingers against my stubby digits.  Needless to say, I was star struck."  

The first Columbia Records album in the Sony box et is entitled Columbia Records Presents The Exciting Debut of Andre Watts Playing Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Flat With Leonard Bernstein New York Philharmonic  The liner notes for the album begin: "The guest soloist at a Thursday evening concert of the New York Philharmonic having been suddenly taken ill, it was announced that his place would be taken by Andre Watts.  Who, the Thursday night audience wondered, was Andre Watts?  Their curiosity changed to astonishment when a slender, handsome sixteen-year-old boy accompanied Leonard Bernstein onto the stage of Philharmonic Hall.  And their astonishment, in turn, became enraptured admiration as the young pianist launched into the Liszt E-flat Piano Concerto, one of the most difficult and brilliant in the repertory.  They gave him a six-minute standing ovation."


Maestro Bernstein had first heard the sixteen-year-old prodigy some months earlier, when he auditioned for a New York Philharmonic Young People's Concert. "I flipped" is Bernstein's succinct description of his reaction to this audition. Andre played the Liszt concerto at the Young People's Concert, which was broadcast over television and seen by many thousands.  @Then, when the scheduled pianist cancelled, Bernstein immediately called in Andre for the Philharmonic Hall engagement.  "Normally I would never do such a thing," the conductor said after the concert.  "After all, he's just a boy, a high school boy. But he will be one of those special giants.  The seeds of his gianthood are already here.  So it seemed a shame not to give him a chance.  He just walked right out like a Persian prince and played.  One day he'll undoubtedly be one of a very special dozen of the world's top pianists."

André Watts was born in Germany on June 20, 1944.  Sony Records has compiled this box set of 12 CDs in honor of his 70th birthday this month.  This reviewer was born two years earlier, and was in the first year of college when Watts performed on the New York Philharmonic Young People's Concert.  The Music Room of the Library was my favorite place to study during the hours I was on campus, but I commuted home to a rural village after classes.  In my early years of college, the only orchestral concerts to which I had access were the televised Young People's Concerts, which were great favorites of mine.

The first few discs of this set in particular bring back strong memories of my introduction to the world of orchestral classical music through the performances of the New York Philharmonic on television and those I explored in the Music Room of my college library.  The 12 CDs are of uniformly high quality.  It is amazing to be reminded of both the precocious achievements of André Watts when he won a national and global reputation, and the continued standard of excellence of his many decades of subsequent performances, as these recordings document.

Comment by email:
I have to get this.  Sergio  [Sergio A. Mims]

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