Idil Biret, celebrity recital at the third Sussex International Piano Competition at the Assembly Hall, Worthing

EVERYTHING could be resisted at the Assembly Hall, Worthing, except the temptation to quote Oscar Wilde – “we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”.

The occasion was the celebrity recital at the third Sussex International Piano Competition on Thursday, April 16. Guttering work at the venue had appeared to affect the hall’s humidity, said Worthing Symphony Orchestra principal conductor John Gibbons before the start.

“Lighting and temperature are difficult today,” he told the audience. Indeed, the unstable atmosphere meant the concert grand needed retuning during the interval.

The star factor, however, reigned supreme from the very first note, dispelling any fears the recital would be marred. Turkish piano virtuoso Idil Biret performed a beautifully balanced Romantic programme of Chopin, Rachmaninov and Scriabin. She made playing some of the most technically demanding repertoire ever written look as easy as turning on the air-conditioning.

Gibbons said the WSO had greatly enjoyed working with competition juror Miss Biret in the past. “She’s an artist of supreme musicianship.”

He could say that again. It was mind-boggling to contemplate that the petite figure in aubergine-coloured skirt, white blouse and black waistcoat, with silver clasp, had been dazzling audiences like us for 60-plus years.

Ankara-born, she started to play piano at the age of three and studied at the Paris Conservatoire under Nadia Boulanger, whose other protégés included Aaron Copland, Quincy Jones, John Eliot Gardiner, Philip Glass and Daniel Barenboim.

She was then a pupil of Alfred Cortot and a lifelong disciple of Wilhelm Kempff, with whom she gave a concert at the Théatre Champs-Elysées in Paris in 1953 aged only 11.

Since the 1960s, she has recorded more than 100 albums and her numerous awards include Poland’s highest order (Krzyzem Kawalerskim Ordera Zaslugi) presented to her in 2007 for her contribution to Polish culture through her Chopin recordings and performances.

In the first half, she treated us to Chopin’s swansong polonaise of 1846 – his Fantaisie in A flat – and his Third Piano Sonata in B minor, of 1844 vintage.

Grace, delicacy, lyricism and light and darkness flowed seamlessly from Miss Biret’s fingers, dipping into every shade and emotional nuance of the late-Chopin palette.

There was dramatic, rolling thunder in the second of the two Rachmaninov Moments Musicaux (Nos. 1 & 6) she played immediately after the interval, but this was nothing compared with the jaw-dropping forces she unleashed in eight of Scriabin’s Etudes.

Never mind about raising the Assembly Hall roof, necessitating more new guttering; she seemed in danger of boring through the earth’s crust one moment, then spontaneously combusting the next as her hands flew across the keys.

And, prodigiously, the final piece capped it all, the Etude No. 5 in C sharp minor from Scriabin’s Opus 42 series. As one critic puts it: “Here Scriabin’s canvas is galactic and his strokes are colossal. The cosmic ship is buffeted by giant breakers, waves that boom and bellow with primal authority.”

Who are we to argue with that or the bravura way Miss Biret delivered it to her Worthing audience?

As a finale, she performed what is believed to have been the first piece of music inspired by a railway journey, Charles-Valentin Alkan’s Le Chemin de Fer of 1844. No lumbering iron horse this, but a full-steam-ahead locomotive surely years ahead of its time.

Frank Horsley