Part rock star, part Olympic athlete, part guru, Franz Liszt (1811-1886) bestrode the 19th century -- a charismatic, larger-than-life figure whom posterity, in this bicentennial year, has yet to digest.
A pianist beyond compare, he invented the modern piano recital and transformed the instrument's technique. A prodigious composer whose output for solo piano alone fills 95 CDs, he spanned (and largely defined) an epoch, having been kissed, according to legend, by Beethoven and having played, in his final year, for the young Claude Debussy. He was a cosmopolite and a nomad, a sensualist with monkish tendencies, a showman and an enigma. Women, it is said, kept his spent cigars in their cleavage.
André Watts' name has been joined with Liszt's since the storybook moment in 1963 when Leonard Bernstein tapped the 16-year-old to replace the ailing Glenn Gould in the E-flat Concerto at a New York Philharmonic concert. Nearly half a century later, Liszt remains Watts' calling card. And as his all-Liszt Schubert Club recital Tuesday at the Ordway Center in St. Paul attested, Watts, at 65, still plays Liszt's music with an agility and authority that pianists half his age would envy.
At the heart of Tuesday's well-made program was the roiling B-minor Sonata of 1853, an odyssey in one vast movement that even Liszt's detractors generally find praiseworthy (though Brahms allegedly dozed off when Liszt played it for him). Brilliantly fusing disparate styles, the sonata allows the performer wide interpretive latitude.
Watts' absorbing account, not without some banging in the piano's lowest reaches, was more visceral than patrician; he captured the wild, demonic energy of the piece -- one feared for his Steinway -- and its restless toggling between flamboyant extroversion and dreamy introspection. But the music's desolation was not slighted, nor was its extraordinary range of color. (Big moments were embellished by foot-stomping and occasional vocalization à la Gould.)
After intermission, Watts ventured into little-known territory: the often-elegiac, sometimes morose music of Liszt's last years. "Sleepless! Question and Answer," with its agitated opening and hymnlike close, was perhaps the strongest of these short pieces; "Bagatelle in No Key," whose title seems to promise an anticipation of Schoenberg, proved a sassy, harmonically ambiguous waltz.
Tuesday's program ended with the predictable pyrotechnic spasm: a Transcendental Étude (No. 10) and a Hungarian Rhapsody (No. 13), both played to the hilt, with the freedom and breadth of gesture that bespeak a bona fide virtuoso.
Larry Fuchsberg writes regularly about music.