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Andr'e Watts still a crowd pleaser after 25 years

It hardly seems possible that it was 25 years ago this past Tuesday that 16-year-old Andr'e Watts made his New York Philharmonic debut in the nationally televised ``Young People's Concerts'' series. The conductor on that occasion was Leonard Bernstein, then the Philharmonic's music director, who a few weeks later invited the prodigiously talented pianist to substitute for an ailing Glenn Gould.

Wednesday night, Mr. Watts was again before the Philharmonic, this time with music director Zubin Mehta, for a PBS simulcast concert featuring the Liszt E-flat Concerto he played 25 years ago, as well as the second concertos of Beethoven and Rachmaninoff. (The program will be re-aired in many areas this weekend; check local listings.)

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It was a vintage Watts evening - at its best a vivid example of the standards and excellence he has sustained for a quarter of a century. He has always been an unflappable performer, gifted with a remarkable set of large hands that seem capable of engulfing a keyboard at risk-defying velocities with hardly ever a mishap. When velocity is the only consideration, the results can be distressingly obvious - which is what happened in the opening Liszt concerto.

Watts has never struck this listener as a profound thinker. He seems to approach all music from the standpoint of his own special sort of color and technique. On that level, it can be handsome, imposing pianism. And Watts always gives the audience the sort of thrills that only a supremely gifted virtuoso can accomplish.

The Rachmaninoff was Watts at his finest. The tempos were expertly chosen and never recklessly fast. His attention to phrasing and melodic shaping was consistently appropriate and effective. And he can manage the grandest Rachmaninoff with his highly personal brand of impassioned nobility. Mehta was the perfect partner here, and the Philharmonic played magnificently throughout the program.

There was one serious liability, which was only indirectly Watts's doing: He has just switched affiliation from Steinway to Yamaha pianos, and the instrument sounded especially unfortunate in Avery Fisher Hall. The moment Watts strove for a big sound, the tone turned thin and strident, and there was no impact in the lower register at all. One can only hope that Yamaha will have a better keyboard to offer him for future dates.

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