As species of concert soloists go, pianists are the least comedic. They tend toward the detached and the cerebral, the physical barrier of the keyboard often serving as a kind of mental barrier to engagement. The image of the aloof piainst, eyes downturned, expression set and serious, dies hard. So, glancing at the programme for tonight's CBSO concert, I did a double-take. What was a silent film comedian doing on the front? And, more pertinently, who was he?

Simon Trpčeski © Lube Saveski
Simon Trpčeski
© Lube Saveski

There is something silent cinematic about Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski. It's in his angular gestures, his keen responsiveness to what is going on around him (I've never seen a pianist more visibly interested in the sounds his accompanists are making) and in his capacity for responding spontaneously to what his partners give him. He is an extremely engaging and vivid personality and a perfect fit for Bartók's Third Piano Concerto, a work of deceptively spontaneous inspiration, that can give the impression of seeming improvised out of thin air (recalling the comment once made about Bartók: “How does he know when he's written anything?”). Trpčeski handled the tentative enquiries with which the Concerto begins with consummate skill, striking exactly the right note of diffidence in these opening sallies and engaging with the orchestra in a dialogue that was by turns intriguing and exciting. The chorale of the second movement had a gentler spontaneity, with the fireworks saved for the final movement's combination of sensitive interludes and visceral attacks. Although this was Bartók's final work (unfinished at the time of his death and completed by collaborator Tibor Serly), mortal thoughts are absent from its sunny and vivacious landscape and the 'Hungarian' character of the work was most convincigly evoked (Bartók seemed impervious to outside influences, despite spending his final years in America) by the combination of West Midlands orchetra and Slav soloist. It would be hard to imagine a more impressive performance and the CBSO's affection for Trpčeski is obviously reciprocated. 

The main item in this programme was Brahms' Second Symphony, widely seen as his most optimistic symphonic work, and the one least pervaded by dark shadows. Conductor Cristian Măcelaru offered no challenge to this perception and didn't seek to find in the music things that (arguably) aren't actually present. If this sounds like damning with faint praise, it's not meant to: Măcelaru encouraged playing of subtle refinement from the basses at the inception of the Allegro non troppo first movement and revealed the creamy, luxuriant textures of the following Adagio movement so they had something of the langour of changing cloud formations on an early autumn afternoon. The playful third movement was an adequate contrast, with fine pizzicato work from the cellos over the beguiling oboe melody which was mellifluously played. The final Allegro had a propulsive energy that powered the symphony to an overwhelming conclusion and left a concluding impression that the work describes a journey from cautious optimism into the full-blown variety, with a few hesitations along the way. A very convincing performance, even if it didn't break any new ground.  

There is nothing hesitant about Dvořák's Carnival Overture, the opening item in this programme. A riotious chronicle of progressive inebriation, the orchestra fell upon it with exuberant relish, presided over by Măcelaru, who certainly seemed to be in party mood. An ideal concert-opener because of its extrovert character, this brief curtain-raiser does have its contempatlive moments, most of them pivoting on Rachael Pankhurst's superbly articulated cor anglais solo in the middle section. Another very satisfying evening in what is shaping up to be a strong autumn season at Symphony Hall.

****1