Former young prodigy André Watts - and his legacy - returns to Philadelphia

The return of pianist André Watts this month is only the latest of his many appearances with the Philadelphia Orchestra since his official debut 40-plus years ago at age 14 - here in the town where he grew up. Yet the Feb. 2-4 concerts will be anything but typical.

Now 70, Watts is slated to play Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4, not the 5th, The Emperor, long one of his signature pieces. The extravagantly written Emperor is more of a young man's concerto. The more reflective 4th says more with fewer notes, and has been more present in Watts' repertoire of late. Since programming the piece in the Mann Center's 2010 season, he has undergone prostate-cancer treatment, one of several ailments that have plagued him in recent years. That can't help but change a musician's inner life.

Reflective is a quality one hasn't often heard from him - as documented on Sony's 12-disc André Watts: The Complete Columbia Album Collection. Issued last year, the set recalls the early-career whirlwind glamour of Watts, showing him as an artist more for exciting star turns than boxed-set binge listening.

Watts hasn't been one to opine about his artistic development. In fact, in one interview I had with him years back, he openly wondered whether he had changed at all. That idea sounds odd now, but it wasn't so much when Watts first emerged. Van Cliburn, for one, believed that having hit the mark with a "classic" interpretation, his job was to aim at the same target in every performance. It's called dependability. And more than Cliburn, Watts has exemplified it.

He arrived in Philadelphia at age 8, having been born in Germany to an American officer and Hungarian mother. He was discovered at age 16 by Leonard Bernstein for one of his televised Young People's Concerts. Of course Watts has changed. He even admits it these days. Watts generally has kept to mainstream programs. Could anybody have predicted that a modernist composer such as György Ligeti would be included? That has happened since Watts joined Indiana University in 2004.

But the point is, Watts is an easily identifiable commodity amid behind-the-scenes challenges, such as substandard pianos, for starters. Career survivors aren't necessarily the most distinguished pianists, but they are professionals who can put up with all of that. Watts is also able to navigate a range of repertoire that hearkens back to the age of generalists, when pianists weren't afraid to apply a one-size-fits-many approach to repertoire from Haydn to Bartók.

If he has a specialty, it's Franz Liszt. The first disc in the Sony box, The Exciting Debut of André Watts, was recorded hurriedly but shows the young pianist in a combustible collaboration with Leonard Bernstein. Revisiting that performance of Liszt, Watts is everything he has ever been. It's all there - specificity of expression amid high-velocity excitement - aided by equal heat and detail from Bernstein.

Watts has said that Liszt really has to be played with the scrupulousness of Mozart, and he has been true to that word. But whereas some pianists might sound pedantic, Watts taps into even more heat when extravagant runs are played in ways so that you hear every note. When he makes a nanosecond pause, the music never drags but gathers steam before the cauldron boils over.

Watts admirers might be damning him with faint praise by calling him the world's greatest interpreter of Liszt's Totentanz - until you hear his performance in the Sony box. The big-fisted chords that pound out the "Dies Irae" chant for the dead have a sonority that suggests Godzilla stomping through the ruins of Tokyo. Without that, the piece sounds like a lot of hot air. The single greatest Watts performance is not in the box but on YouTube - a 1988 live video of the Liszt Sonata in B minor that has immense passion, authority, and command of keyboard sonority that marks him as a great pianist.

The Watts by George! disc of Gershwin remains wonderful. In a solo piano transcription of "Rhapsody in Blue," he doesn't try to replicate the opening wail of the clarinet solo but creates a beautiful legato line that conveys both the meaning and architecture of the idea, and how it fuses with the rest of the piece.

Collaborations with Bernstein (the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 and Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2) have an alluring gravity. But his Chopin is a curious blind spot. The music's drama comes off as trivial and tiresome; the sonority is dull and opaque while rhythms are clunky. Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy is similarly unsympathetic. And the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 with Seiji Ozawa supports Watts' admission that he sometimes clams up in the recording studio.

Watts' fingers seem happiest when busiest on the Sony set, whether digging into the harmonic sophistication of Brahms or achieving breathtaking scintillation at the end of Haydn's Piano Sonata in C major heard on the Live in Tokyo album.

That kind of filigree fingerwork has interesting implications for Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 that Watts plays here. Far more than numbering separates that piece from the more virtuosic Piano Concerto No. 5. Though the truth of the latter lies in the notes, rather more substance lies between the notes of the former.

Not everybody makes the transition well. Christoph Eschenbach said the 4th, though far from a finger buster, is the most difficult of the Beethoven concertos. Cliburn didn't do well with it at all.

And Watts? He doesn't always have first-class conductors to work with, as he's the type who can always take care of himself. But with the Metropolitan Opera's principal conductor, Fabio Luisi, at the helm, he won't have to.

dstearns@phillynews.com.