How does a world-famous octogenarian pianist get off stage when the audience is shouting for more? Martha Argerich faced this dilemma last night in Lucerne – a welcome return to performing after illness caused her to cancel appearances in Lyon and Rome last month. She had just given a characteristically thrilling account of Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor and two delightful encores and yet still the crowd begged her to continue. She took this applause with cheerful good grace before turning to concert master Gregory Ahss and gently persuaded him that she and all the members of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra should leave the platform together: a collegiate way to say a polite but firm goodnight.

Martha Argerich and the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra
© Philipp Schmidli

Her eagerly anticipated performance was one of the highlights of Lucerne’s new festival, entitled “Le Piano symphonique”, an exploration of the vast repertoire of the king of instruments and a celebration of today’s leading pianists. Víkingur Ólafsson, Khatia Buniatishvili and the 17-year-old Wunderkind Yoav Levanon are just some of those appearing in the next few days.

Argerich, of course, is queen of them all and last night showed that she maintains her right to the throne. With Michael Sanderling conducting she engendered that collegiate feel with the players from the opening bars, maintaining a magical symbiosis with the orchestra while also managing to slip in some melting rubato. The cantabile central section of the opening movement was particularly memorable, with strings whispering alongside her bubbling left hand, until interrupted abruptly by her dramatic summons to move the music into the transition towards the oboe solo, a melody repeated with such sweetness by Argerich.

Martha Argerich
© Philipp Schmidli

The Intermezzo was a delightfully unhurried tiptoe through a tranquil landscape, but playing of such liquid ease can disguise the tremendous power that lurks in Argerich’s fingers, so the explosive opening to the final Allegro vivace came as something of a shock. From then on it was all about building the excitement, with both piano and orchestra surging onward, like a powerboat plunging through the waves. With Sanderling at the helm and Argerich providing the momentum, this was a thrilling, virtuosic ride, combining power with intelligent, elegant musicality.

Michael Sanderling conducts the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra
© Philipp Schmidli

The evening had opened with Brahms’ Third Symphony – a piece that the orchestra’s intendant, Numa Bischof Ullmann, intriguingly feels is innately pianistic and a natural partner to the Schumann. The clean acoustic of the KKL Konzertsaal allowed every part to shine in the sunny opening Allegro, woodwind pithy and strings gleaming. Only in the lilting third movement did Sanderling seem to falter, pushing the tempi too fast for comfort, perhaps in a determination not to wallow in that glorious melody. As a result the beautiful horn solo felt hurried and out of shape, and we lost the contrast with the strident opening of the final Allegro. Not that we had to wait long for the strings to take command and raise the temperature with some thrilling, incisive playing, before all the parts subsided back into the tranquility in which we had begun.

Stephen’s press trip was funded by the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra.