Duel purpose of key players' concerto clash

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 February, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 February, 2005, 12:00am

Comparisons were inevitable when Prokofiev's thrilling Third Piano Concerto was played twice by different performers in the same week - and hawkish London audiences were looking for a loser.

The first performance was south of the river at London's Royal Festival Hall by the veteran Italian-American pianist James Tocco. The second was north of the river by young Simon Trpceski from the Republic of Macedonia.

Backing Tocco on the conductor's rostrum was Mikhail Pletnev, a Russian pianist and conductor whose own playing of Prokofiev's concerto has drawn plaudits and has been recorded by Deutsche Grammophon. Over at the Barbican with Trpceski, it was Japanese conductor Tadaaki Otaka waving his baton over the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto is a great work to do battle with. A 20th-century favourite, its three movements rush past with the juddering impact of a high-speed train.

Tocco's Prokofiev was part of an all-Russian programme, with other works by Dmitri Shostakovich. It got off to an exciting start with Shostakovich's Festive Overture, written to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. The function of an overture is to open a concert and warm up the audience and orchestra. Under Pletnev's baton this short, brisk, celebratory work lifted us in the space of minutes from harassed commuters to delighted concert-goers. So, Tocco began his concerto with an audience primed and aglow.

Trpceski, on the other hand, sat down on his piano stall after the world premiere of a gloomy new political work by Welsh composer Richard Barrett entitled, No - a highly critical musical response to the US-led war against terrorism, which left the audience discomforted. This new work was played on an enlarged orchestra that required quadruple woodwind and brass, as well as various rarely used instruments, including a row of clay flower pots.

Tocco is little known in Britain, but famous in the US for his interpretations of works by Bernstein and Corigliano. Trpceski shot to fame in Britain three years ago by a quirk of fate when the scheduled pianist for a performance of Prokofiev's Third with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra took ill. At the time, Trpceski was a BBC New Generation artist in his early 20s and his stand-in performance stunned critics and launched a career that included a triumphant performance at the London Proms last year.

Elegant, quirky, detailed and passionate, the Philharmonia gave a thrilling accompaniment to a less than thrilling interpretation by Tocco. North of the river, it was a different story with Trpceski chasing the wind and, with the help of Otaka, almost catching it.