Scott Watkins, Pianist in Review
Scott Watkins, Piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
October 10, 2015
American pianist Scott Watkins performed music of Bartók, Hanson, and Debussy last weekend, in a program that was well suited to his particular pianistic and musical gifts. A keen intellect was immediately apparent in his opener, the Piano Sonata Sz. 80 (1926) by Béla Bartók (1881-1945), which drew upon his laser-like focus, faultless memory, and considerable analytic grasp. It was bold and bracing in its relentless rhythms without ever devolving into the earsplitting harshness that one so often hears in this piece. Though many advocate unleashing the beast in this work (a product of the “barbaric” period of the composer’s life), pacing and control are still important – and one can appreciate so much more of the composition if one is not covering one’s ears! Thankfully, Mr. Watkins showed judicious control and steadiness, but with plenty of stamina. For this listener, a fan of Murray Perahia’s recording of the work, it might have benefited from even more imaginative orchestral color, but it was certainly outstanding.
The rest of the first half consisted of a remarkable discovery (or rediscovery), the Piano Sonata in A Minor, Op. 11 (1918), by the prominent American composer Howard Hanson (1896-1981) in its first New York City performance. According to Hanson’s own notes, the Sonata was first performed in 1919. Unpublished for nearly a century, the work enjoyed some attention in a different incarnation around the year 2000, when pianist Thomas Labé made his own lushly Romantic completion of the piece from an unfinished manuscript and recorded it for Naxos; timing was not on Mr. Labé’s side, however, because after all that work, another manuscript surfaced, this one complete, and the Eastman School of Music acquired it in 2007. It is this second discovery, the original, which Mr. Watkins performs and has also recorded. Though it is impossible to “unhear” Mr. Labé, who channeled the composer’s style well, one naturally wants to experience Hanson’s actual composition, and Mr. Watkins makes that possible, with excellent attention to detail and respect for the score. This listener sometimes longed for more of a sense of emotional involvement, as the piece has a highly personal expressiveness about it, reminiscent of MacDowell or Grieg; on the other hand, it is not easy to make a heart-on-sleeve approach convincing in such a youthful work without it degenerating into schlock. Some musicians like to downplay the excess while others embrace it, and Mr. Watkins chose the more restrained approach, with the fidelity of a music historian.
Mr. Watkins is currently Associate Professor of Piano at Jacksonville University, and since 2011 he has held the position of Visiting Foreign Scholar at Beifang University’s Conservatory of Music and Dance in Yin Chuan, China. Along with an active career including collaborations with prominent musicians such as violinists Eugene Fodor and Hillary Hahn, he holds a doctorate from Florida State University and clearly has a scholarly bent. It was therefore not so surprising that his playing emphasized the more cerebral qualities in each work.
Debussy’s Préludes Book II were a good match for Mr. Watkins’ gifts. Despite the tendency of many pianists to use the excuse of “impressionism” to run wild and drown some of these twelve pieces in pedal, we know that Debussy was against such abuse, and Mr. Watkins gets it right. He plays with the requisite clarity, but with great sweeps and washes of sound when required. These were excellent performances.
There was delicacy in Bruyères and a haunting quality in Feuilles mortes. Mr. Watkins is an undemonstrative player, but the music spoke for itself. A “straight man” approach in fact enhanced the fun of “Général Lavine” – eccentric and Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq., P. P. M. P. C., as one might expect.
Les tierces alternées (No. 11) was also a highlight. Mr. Watkins was extremely impressive in his handling of its exposed technical challenges. While it is not this listener’s favorite Prélude, it took a prize for sheer digital prowess. Only Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses disappointed a bit, sounding a tad heavy for fairies, but allowances must be made for a bright piano. Feux d’artifice (No. 12) was a brilliant close, played with vivid imagination and fire. All in all, it was a highly praiseworthy concert – a fulfilling musical evening.