DUO conCERTO (Arta Arnicane, piano; Florian Rohn, cello), Assembly Hall, Worthing; Thursday April 11

THE COUNTY’S classical music fans in the county have fallen in love with the winner of their first Sussex International Piano Competition winner during the three years since Latvian Arta Arnicane’s victory. And she sank deeper into their hearts during this special concert within this year’s Competition which marked its halfway point.

Not only for her thoughtful, but joyful solo playing of Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque where she artfully let the notes and the pedals speak for themselves. But by introducing herself with her man-love Florian Rohn, on stage, playing the cello in their new pairing, DUO conCERTO. During the applause after their second encore, dedicated she said “to those in love” — their arrangement of Elgar’s Salut D’Amour, normally set for violin — she threw herself at him to bury a large, long kiss onto the lips of her partner.

Rohn, German, from a little south of Stuttgart, had introduced himself to almost Arnicane’s second home, Worthing , with fellow countryman Bach’s solo Cello Suite No 1. It was quite understated and as a whole almost a meditation, and he then paired with Arnicane to play Debussy’s scarcely-heard early works, Intermezzo and Scherzo. Quite uncharacteristic of the composer we know now, it was nevertheless the vehicle for Rohn to show lightness and lyricism after the arresting beginning that leads to a theme Spanish in flavour with hints of the Moorish.

After the interval the audience, which included several Competition competitors, hardly knew what hit them. Beehoven’s 12 Variations on Papageno’s ‘A little maid, a little wife’ from Mozart’s The Magic Flute flew past in fleeting and flickering flurries of wit. No self-indulgence or false seriousness, tempos were light and fun and this suddenly exposed a brilliant dimension to this new DUO conCERTO partnership.

But what came next and concluded a marvellously-judged programme truly set the pulses racing. Brahms’ great E minor Sonata was revealed to a largely unknowing audience in an explosive way. If anyone has difficulty in imagining Arnicane’s upcoming first performance of Brahms’ 2nd Piano Concerto, they can now do so easily.

Rohn, Brahms and Arnicane were as one in a live performance of a passion that generated something electrifying that many a studio version by the great and famous would not match. The deeply expressed, brooding but beautiful Allegro non Troppo had an beneficial unsentimental delivery with uncloying forward movement. The Allegretto quasi Minuetto danced tip-toe yet strongly and in the Trio one heard the cauldron starting to boil.

The Bach-tributing fugal finale was like no fugal finale Bach could have written. Arnicane was a hunting lioness unleashed, living the power and conviction of Brahms’ piano playing and writing in full cry. Rohn had to go with her all the way and make the hugest sound he could, and he did — with a thrilling conviction which du Pré would have noted. Together they attacked and we had a thunderstorm on our hands that will stay in the memory of those who heard it.

Rohn got the spotlight to sing in both encores they played, opening with an arrangement of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, originally composed for soprano and piano. Having thus performed, Rohn said, the first piece they ever played together, he then he won Arta’s embrace with the Elgar.

The Assembly Hall is no place for an audience to experience chamber music to the full, or for the players to reap the fullest reaction. The audience lose by not sitting together or facing each other, and the musicians might as well be playing to an aircraft hangar.

Hopes of creating an event in the round were not financially viable because the Steinway piano had to remain on the stage. A true home for this music may be possible to create elsewhere in Worthing. The example set by Brighton and Hove’s Sunday morning Coffee Concert series, formerly in the Old Market, now the Corn Exchange, is the best way forward but the principle still needs a smaller venue.

Last evening in the Assembly Hall, new Sussex International Competition organising director Tim Chick’s excellent modern lighting against an art deco back scene and stage-wide rear curtain immediately created something new and striking in a way to present this rarefied but richly rewarding and intimate music genre. It was visually surpassed only by the golden gown of Ms Arnicane.

Part of her performing magic is her face. It constantly expresses her sheer pleasure in great music-making. Those in audience seats too far right to see the keyboard are strongly compensated.

The Competition Semi-finals today (2pm and 6pm, results some time after 9m), contested by six who came through the Quarter-finals, should reveal if another unusual personality is present who could have it in them to become a true successor to Arta Arnicane.

Richard Amey