The Kennedy Center opened its promising series of romantic piano concerts in the Terrace Theater last night with James Tocco, who was almost always exciting, and sometimes brilliant.

To Tocco, who is in his late thirties and deserves to be better known, the most complex feats of articulation and power seem to come almost easily. His concluding Liszt 12th Hungarian Rhapsody and the last encore, Rachmaninoff's staggering arrangement of Kreisler's lovely little "Love's Joy," were remarkable. These kinds of virtuoso displays are often like two pieces being played at the same time -- the relatively simple central material and the whirlwind of notes circling like a hurricane. Tocco has the kind of digital assurance to keep it wonderfully steady; clarity was never lost. And the Rachmaninoff, especially, is a masterpiece of this kind of music.

But the Chopin Preludes, those 24 ineffable miniature tone poems, are almost always the ultimate interpretive test of any program on which they occur. The tender melodies, the countermelodies, the crucial inner harmonies, the huge fortissimo leaps are virtually a lexicon of what romantic piano music is all about.

Tocco's performances were beautifully thought out, both digitally and intellectually; the concentration was intense and no important detail was slighted. If anything was a little short, it was a sense of romantic poetic exaltation, the sort of spiritual dimension that Leon Fleisher brought to the Chopin Nocturne on his return to the full keyboard the other night.