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After 42 years, pianistmakes a striking return

Reprinted from late editions of yesterday's Globe.

The Turkish pianist Idil Biret was one of the greatest pianistic prodigies of the 20th century. She celebrated her 64th birthday last week, and her recital at the Boston Conservatory on Tuesday night demonstrated that she is no less prodigious today. She played a long and demanding program with the power, concentration, and pouncing instincts of a crouching tiger.

Biret's career has been unusual. The American part of it never gained momentum after her ill-fated debut in this country, playing the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto in Symphony Hall the day of the Kennedy assassination; Tuesday's recital was her first Boston appearance in 42 years. In the '80s and '90s she concentrated on recording, making more than 50 best-selling CDs for Naxos -- the records are probably what drew a capacity crowd into Seully Hall.

Still girlish in manner, Biret led off with four transcriptions of Bach made by one of her mentors, the great German pianist Wilhelm Kempff. These were remarkable for depth of tone and the clarity she brought to complex voicings -- she can maintain several simultaneous colors, textures, and dynamic levels. The last one featured a skimming right-hand part, delivered with staggering speed and dexterity; the left hand carried the melody, harmony, and bass no less impressively.

The 12 Etudes from Chopin's Opus 25 followed, delivered with magisterial authority and transcendental technique; you could hear members of the audience gasp during the etude in octaves. But she also presented each of the pieces as a tone poem.

After intermission she offered a group of Rachmaninoff's Etudes-Tableaux. Despite Biret's fire and dash, playing four of them in a row created the impression we were being attacked with a battering ram.

Three of the magnificently imaginative etudes by the contemporary Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti came next, including ''Autumn in Warsaw," which is, among other things, a reminiscence of Chopin's ''Winter Wind" etude that we had just heard. In these, Biret's musicianship and focused rhythmic sense were fully the equal of her dexterity and prismatic display of colors. The program officially closed with a suite transcribed from Stravinsky's ''Firebird" ballet. This music doesn't translate to the piano as effectively as the later ''Petroushka" ballet did -- there's a lot of fill-in. But Biret was startling in the Firebird's darting dance, tremendous in the ''Danse infernale," and eloquent in the lullaby.

At encore time, one might have chosen to hear something clear and pristine by Mozart, but instead Biret chose two Liszt transcriptions, the scherzo from Beethoven's ''Eroica" Symphony, and his not altogether tasteful take on Schubert's ''Ave Maria," which was nevertheless sumptuously played. This is the kind of playing that makes reservations irrelevant; there is no one like her, which is what defines a unique artist.

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