Andre Watts went toe to toe against the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 last night. Had it been a contest by Marquess of Queensberry rules, a referee would have stopped it -- Brahms took an awful mauling. But crowds love blood, and the Meyerhoff Hall audience adored the way Watts battered the piece in his performance with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and guest conductor Hans Vonk.
Watts' strategy was clear from the beginning: Put the pedal down and play as loudly as possible. It's not easy to describe Watts' sound when he plays out (which is most of the time). To these ears that sound is coarse, vulgar and ugly. Some might call his a virtuoso performance -- but great virtuosos do not miss so many of the second movement's famous legato double octaves. Nor do they use the pedal so liberally, creating an obfuscating haze that masks such mistakes.
This was not an unintelligent performance: Watts has been playing the Brahms Second all of his adult life, and he knows it inside and out. It is just sad to see that intelligence used to make the subtle light and shade of the work's cathedral-like spaces seem as brightly lit as a California mall. Vonk and the orchestra gave Watts a fine accompaniment -- even though the final movement was a bit of a scramble. The horns, particularly Peter Landgren and Mary Bisson, played beautifully, and principal cellist Mihaly Virizlay played the slow movement's cello solo sensitively, if with somewhat less than his usual accuracy.