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Shostakovich and Prokofiev: James Tocco (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra, Mikhail Pletnev, conductor, RFH, February 3 2005

Shostakovich: Festive Overture, Op. 96
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 15

Pianist James Tocco is a specialist in American music, and something of the breezy, laidback charm of the jazz club could be heard in Thursday's performance of Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto with the Philharmonia and guest conductor Mikhail Pletnev. In Tocco's reading, the ghosts of Bernstein, Gershwin and even Theloneous Monk permeated the more lyrical passages - appropriate in a work begun in jazz-era America and completed in 1920s Paris - and Tocco made the most of these moments, imbuing them with a gentle whimsy and yielding some lovely results. Unfortunately, whimsy will only get you so far in Prokofiev; it is the biting, acerbic motor-rhythms that really characterize Prokofiev's music and in this respect Tocco's approach simply felt wrong-headed. The first movement's toccata-like semiquaver runs should go off like fizzing Manheim Skyrockets, but Tocco's imprecise and sometimes muddled rhythms conspired to produce a succession of damp squibs instead, notably in the lead-up to the recapitulation where a keyboard mishap left Tocco looking helplessly to Pletnev for support.

Pletnev, of course, has performed and recorded the work himself as pianist (DG 571 576-2), and one would expect him to be a sympathetic accompanist. In some ways he was, toning down the mordant, brash colours of the Shostakovich Festive Overture which opened the concert to suit Tocco's relaxed style, occasionally bopping his head appreciatively in time with Tocco's playing. However, with tempi consistently on the slow side and favouring gentle, muted attacks, he failed to build up enough momentum or energy to bring off any of the major climaxes convincingly. Even the big, Hollywood-style tune in the finale felt dull and uninvolving. Spines remained distinctly untingled.

The performance of Shostakovich's 15th Symphony, which followed the interval, was another story, however. From the opening flute solo, played with great character by Kenneth Smith, it was clear that we were in for a dark, well-controlled account of a symphony that can so easily slide into disarray. Peppered throughout with quotations from Rossini, Wagner, Glinka and his own earlier works, Shostakovich's last symphony is in many ways his most difficult: a post-modernist collage of found musical objects interspersed by long, meandering solos and characterized throughout by stark contrasts of mood and colour. Nowhere is this more evident than in the first movement, described by Shostakovich as a 'toyshop' but more like a scrapbook of childhood memories, some happy, others wistful, others frankly disturbing. The Philharmonia played with great verve and attention to detail throughout, the winds and brass in particular sounding authentically Russian. The rhythmic control was impressive - in sharp contrast to the woolly Prokofiev of the first half - and Pletnev never let us forget that dark undercurrents lurked beneath what often seemed on the surface like jovial, carefree music.

Those dark undercurrents rose to the surface in the Adagio, with a solemn brass dirge giving way to David Cohen's impassioned, haunting cello solo. In this movement, Shostakovich reduces his orchestration to a bare minimum, and Pletnev gave this sparse music plenty of breathing room, reveling in the rarefied, mysterious atmosphere and letting the many silences speak for themselves. Despite this, the music never dragged and he drove it steadily towards a monumental climax, timpani hammering out their funeral rhythm ferociously before giving way to a poignant, unaccompanied celesta line which floated wearily above a strange, desolate landscape.

Unadulterated weirdness returned in the third movement, and Pletnev underlined its blacker-than-black humour with biting accents and expert dynamic control. His attention to detail really paid off here, with the Philharmonia's principals contributing some wonderfully devilish, gypsy-like solos; it made for a spine-chilling interlude before the finale's return to morose solemnity. Here the brass once again evoked the spectre of death, the music borrowing from Siegfried's funeral march in Gotterdämmerung, only to be lightened by a gently dancing string theme given a wistful, pensive quality in Pletnev's reading. If energy flagged a little in the movement's central passacaglia section, it had returned by the chattering, skeletal passage for ensemble percussion with which the movement ended.

It was an impressive performance, and Pletnev showed a mastery of Shostakovich's idiom second-to-none. The Philharmonia was on top form throughout, and the frisson between conductor and orchestra was in clear evidence - making even so slight a work as the Festive Overture sound a better piece than it really is. It was only a shame the same attentiveness and vigour was not applied to the Prokofiev; it would have made for a truly first-rate evening.

Tristan Jakob-Hoff

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