Before Martha Argerich had touched a key at her performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in C major on Friday night, the Carnegie Hall audience had stood up to applaud. It was an irrepressible salute to the pianist whose mythology precedes her, whose mere presence around a piano is thought to constitute an event of cosmic potential.

Nine years had elapsed since her last appearance here, playing Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto. This time, accompanied deftly by Rome’s Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia under Sir Antonio Pappano, Argerich performed the piece she first enshrined on her landmark 1966 recording with Claudio Abbado, and which has become a staple in an increasingly limited rotation. From her exuberant entrance to the concerto, Argerich made plain that her vitality on the instrument is no less a phenomenon than it was when she was 25 years old. 

Prokofiev's concerto glitters with impishness – the exhilarating first and second movements are cheeky, convivial romps to the finish line, and the second is a gambol through saucy variations on a dignified theme – yet lyrical moments are ample. With seemingly no physical effort, Argerich at every phrase drew each of the music’s characters into stark relief. She handles the piano as one might handle a small bird, with weightlessness and watchful poise. Though renowned for her quick tempi, she also played with mesmerizing slowness: at one quiet, solo articulation of the theme in the second movement, she lent each note such a particularity that time seemed to wait for her to decide when to continue. She was as much soloist as conductor, lighting the way for the orchestra to follow her. The third movement drew Argerich and the orchestra into a jazzy dervish, with each feeding off the other’s excitement until the final flourish. For her encore, “Laideronette” from Ravel’s Mother Goose arranged for piano four hands, Pappano joined Argerich at the bench, proving an able partner.

Though the concert’s opener, Verdi’s Sinfonia from his opera Aida, verged on the matter-of-fact, the Santa Cecilians' delivery of Respighi’s tone poems The Pines of Rome and The Fountains of Rome was vivacious, perhaps carried by a touch of hometown pride (the orchestra premiered the pieces in 1917 and 1924, respectively). The latter’s pyrotechnics are not only orchestral, with brass players traipsing up to the rafters for the final section detailing the army moving along The Appian Way, but also technological, with a recorded nightingale song turning heads during the third section. As in the Prokofiev, the principal clarinetist performed the solo here with generous languor. The strings, led by their lively concertmaster (who shone in his own solos), captivated especially in the finale, performed earnestly and with joy.  

“And now something a little quieter,” Pappano announced before the first encore, Sibelius’ Valse triste. The commitment to quiet was brief: next and last, the orchestra romped through Rossini’s William Tell Overture, as though the night would last for as long as they could play.