Last Thursday evening Simon Trpčeski thrilled a three quarters capacity audience at the Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton in a rewarding programme of Brahms, Ravel and Poulenc. This Macedonian-born pianist, and winner of the 2001 London International Piano Competition, has now established himself as one of the most remarkable young musicians to have emerged in recent years, performing with many of the world’s greatest orchestras and delighting audiences worldwide.

From the very first bars of Brahms’ Op. 117 Intermezzi, (three late pieces from 1892) it was clear that we were to be given a memorable reading, and in a highly individual approach to tempo Trpčeski was to emphasise Brahms’ sense of reverie and introspection. Indeed, so slow was the opening paragraph of the first Intermezzo that one might have been forgiven for thinking that there had been a momentary loss of memory: the marking Andante moderato was transformed into a dream-like Molto adagio, with all sense of regular pulse seemingly suspended. Any sense of line was traded for a quasi-improvisatory effect, and while this startling ploy may have been slightly over-egged, Trpčeski’s insightful interpretation and tonal beauty were mesmerising.

Simon Trpčeski © Simon Fowler
Simon Trpčeski
© Simon Fowler

In contrast to this personal approach, it was with a degree of emotional detachment that Trpčeski began Brahms’ Variations on a theme of Handel, Op. 24 which followed. Written some thirty years earlier in 1861, this set of twenty-five variations and concluding fugue is one of the composer’s most formidable works and, at nearly twenty-five minutes, one of the longest. Its assertion of traditional musical values, epitomised by Brahms, even impressed Wagner who, after hearing the work declared, “It shows what can still be done with the old forms by somebody who knows how to treat them”. The variations were dispatched with panache and perhaps had they not been placed before the interval, but as a final recital offering, there might have been a little more dare and dash. That said, this no-risk performance with its triumphant conclusion was met with cheers of approval from a very appreciative audience.

Following the interval and a stylistic sea-change there came Ravel’s Valse nobles et Sentimentales (originally given anonymously in 1911 when the audience were invited to guess the composer’s name – a tactic not repeated by the Société Musicale Indépendante which first promoted the work). Whilst these waltz movements might seem unlikely companions to the Brahms/Handel variations (Le Tombeau de Couperin would surely have been a more obvious choice), Trpčeski was fully engaged with their combination of languor and playfulness, and alert to the music’s initial percussive quality and chromatic outlines. Ravel’s harmonic acerbities provided a useful stylistic link to Poulenc’s Novelettes that formed part of the concluding composer portrait. These vignettes, as well as five Improvisations and the “Toccata” from Trois Piéces were well chosen items, and aptly demonstrated that the composer’s piano works are more than just confections for salon consumption. Trpčeski gave lovingly crafted performances, conveying both the music’s intrinsic elegance and Gallic sensitivity that left the audience wanting more.

 It was with music from Macedonia, rarely heard in UK concert programmes, that he chose as an encore a short piece by his compatriot, Pande Shahov in a folk-inspired work called In Struga.  This proved to be a vigorous “work out” for the fingers and a final reminder of how dazzling Simon Trpčeski can be.