I have not been a particular advocate of André Watts; I've heard him bang about in live concert too many times. And I've even heard him play the Tchaik 1 in concert and was not particularly impressed. But earlier today I heard this performance of the First Concerto on our local NPR station, having tuned in at literally bar 5 (perfect timing!) and, not knowing who it was, I listened. And listened. And listened. And kept thinking, who is this? This is good! And even more I was thinking that the aural stage was perfectly managed, with the piano sound seeming to come OUT of the orchestra rather than set way in front. Further, I could hear orchestral detail (e.g., like those two-flute arpeggios just before the final onrush of the first movement) that are almost never heard on recording. So, fool that I am, I sat in my car until the whole thing was over, really curious to find out who the performers were. I was shocked (and uneasy about my own bias) to learn that it was André Watts, with Yoel Levi conducting the Atlanta Symphony. A recording from ten years ago. I was even more dismayed to remember, once I got home, that I OWN this recording--but I couldn't ever remember listening to it, frankly--and I found it, removed the shrink-wrap (sure enough, I HAD never listened to it) and sat down for a complete run through.
My initial impression lasted. Yes, there were some smudges in the last movement (as Watts sometimes does, alas) and some brief odd blurring of the overall sound, also in the last movement, but myt general assessment from the radio lasted.
And then I listened to the Saint-SaŽns Second Concerto and, again, I had a very positive impression. No, Watts doesn't make the most of the leggierissimo aspects of the third movement, but overall it's a very creditable performance and he conveys convincingly the declamatory aspects of the piece. What Levi and his Atlantans do is electrifying in both pieces. (I even initially wondered, though I assume these concerti are not really part of his repertoire, that it could possibly be Pierre Boulez conducting because of the care taken with instrumental detail.) Some credit, of course, has to go to the recording engineers; Telarc has long been noted for its sterling sound.
So, the bottom line is that these are valuable recordings of both of these warhorses, and particularly if one wants a more natural sound--no harsh spotlight on the piano--and crystal clear orchestral sound.
But I do go on. This is an excellent release in spite of my biases.