Watts’s mother was Hungarian and his father an African-American sergeant in the United States army stationed in Germany. His mother was his first piano teacher, although he had begun lessons on the violin at the age of six. By the time he was eight, Watts’s father had been transferred back to America where the family settled in Philadelphia. At the Philadelphia Musical Academy Watts received piano instruction from Genia Robinor and Doris Bowden. At the age of nine he played Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D major at a children’s concert presented by the Philadelphia Orchestra, and at eleven played Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor Op. 25 with the same orchestra at their summer home of Robin Hood Dell. At the age of fourteen Watts played César Franck’s Variations Symphoniques with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
It was in 1962 that Watts auditioned for the young people’s concerts of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. When conductor Leonard Bernstein heard the sixteen-year-old boy he immediately engaged him to play Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat in January 1963. The concert was a huge success, a success that was nationwide as the concert was broadcast on television. Watts’s good fortune continued when Glenn Gould cancelled two appearances with the New York Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein chose him as the substitute. He received many offers to perform but his mother wisely prevented this. She had separated from her husband when André was eleven, and not until he was seventeen did she sign a contract with Columbia Artists Management. Having completed his academic education, Watts decided to enrol at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia but was refused entry; he therefore took lessons with Leon Fleisher at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. While studying intermittently with Fleisher, Watts continued to perform, winning rave reviews for his performances of Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat Op. 83 and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor Op. 30. He played both within the same week in London in November 1969. Mosco Carner in The Times wrote, ‘His pianism is so perfect—at a distance it reminded me of Rubinstein’s—that after a while one accepted it as the most natural thing; all the more since Mr Watts never drew undue attention to it.’
In a performing career that has taken him across Europe, India, Russia, North and South America, and Japan, Watts is often on tour for ten months of the year since he tends to spend most of his time performing. He regularly takes part in summer music festivals including those at Ravinia, Tanglewood and Saratoga, and has performed with many of the major American orchestras. Watts also gives master-classes when not touring. Apart from his televised debut performance of Liszt’s Piano Concerto No.1 with Bernstein, Watts was also the first pianist to have a full-length recital broadcast in America in 1976, live from Lincoln Center. In 1988 he celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of his debut with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra by performing three concertos with the orchestra: Liszt’s Piano Concerto in E flat, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat Op. 19 and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 18. This concert too was televised.
Watts has received many awards from academic institutions and was only twenty-six when he received his honorary doctorate from Yale University.
Watts is essentially a pianist in the Romantic virtuoso mould. His repertoire, beginning with Haydn and ending with Debussy, has been criticised for its smallness, but it is no more limited than that of many other pianists. His concerto repertoire includes some more unusual works from the nineteenth century such as Edward MacDowell’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in D minor Op. 23 and the Piano Concerto by Rimsky-Korsakov. Although he makes something of a speciality of Liszt, he also tackles late Schubert sonatas. His technique is in the virtuoso class, and he enjoys taking risks in virtuoso music. This pays high dividends in works such as Liszt’s Totentanz where the young Watts can give a performance shot through with adrenalin like those of György Cziffra. Ever popular in his homeland, Watts has a stage presence and the ability to project his personality in order to engage with audiences.
Not surprisingly, Watts’s first recording was of his sensational performance of Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and Leonard Bernstein. Made in 1963 it conveys all the electricity and drama of the seventeen-year-old pianist, with Bernstein matching him all the way. Just as impressive is the 1974 recording of Liszt’s Totentanz with the London Symphony Orchestra and Erich Leinsdorf. Apart from the French Impressionists, other twentieth-century repertoire that Watts plays includes music by his compatriot George Gershwin. In 1972 he recorded The Gershwin Songbook of arrangements by the composer himself. Some of his Schubert performances have been described as technically impressive, but musically lacking. Watts plays Schubert as a nineteenth-century Romantic, giving a virtuoso performance of the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy D. 760 that is out of fashion at the moment. The Piano Sonata in B minor by Liszt recorded in 1970 displays Watts’s liking for minimal editing where a few wrong notes do not bother him. He plays the work as if his life depended on it, with extreme speeds and a building of excitement that can whip audiences into a frenzy. In the same class is his 1969 recording of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and Seiji Ozawa which is as exciting as any on record; Watts delights in his own virtuosity and enjoys sharing it with his audience. Nearly all of his CBS/Sony recordings can be recommended, and they are preferable to his Angel/EMI recordings of the 1980s when he re-recorded a fair amount of Liszt. The later recordings are certainly more controlled, but lack the excitement of the earlier issues. The best of the Angel/EMI releases is a live recording of his twenty-fifth anniversary recital, given at Carnegie Hall in April 1988, where Watts played a programme of Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Brahms. Also interesting is a disc of Beethoven piano sonatas where Watts creates a beautiful sound and mood, particularly in Op. 27 No. 1 in E flat.
Watts’s most recent recordings have been made for the Telarc label. He has recorded Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 23 and Saint-Saëns’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor Op. 22 with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Yoel Levi. Another disc contains both Liszt concertos and a fine performance of Edward MacDowell’s Piano Concerto No. 2, where Watts is partnered by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Andrew Litton.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).