Martha Argerich joined the Manchester Camerata and her friend Gábor Takács-Nagy for a memorable evening of Bartók, Beethoven and Pärt at the Manchester International Festival.

The biennial Festival, now in its fourth incarnation, has a strong record of producing major classical events, but bringing the elusive Argentinian to Manchester, and Manchester only, represents a major coup for Takács-Nagy and festival Artistic Director Alex Poots. A few present last night reminisced fondly of Argerich’s last appearance here, on 7 November 1965, playing the Chopin E minor concerto with the Hallé under Claudio Abbado (in his UK debut), and there will surely be similar nostalgia for this performance in 2061.

Watching Argerich before she has even started is quite revealing. She will accompany orchestral passages on her knees, sway with the music and periodically throw a big smile at someone. At her first entry, after a beautifully quiet introduction, she immediately showed a fine blend of power and lyricism in some flowing semiquavers. The first movement’s cadenza was excellent, but it was the second and third movements which were the most brilliant. The slow movement was deeply moving, with an exquisite moment at the breathtakingly quiet reappearance of the first theme. The strings murmured softly underneath, occasionally gently leaning into the dotted figure which punctuated the movement.

Argerich launched into the finale with little pause, and proceeded to spin out a movement which was a complete joy to behold. Time and again she would reel the audience in with a line which seemed to be heading in a certain direction before a subtle, sparkling turn of phrase. It captured every nuance of Beethoven’s charm and wit. There appeared to be very good feeling between orchestra and soloist, with Argerich beaming as she exchanged rising scales with the flute. There was plenty of lovely playing from the orchestra in their own right, notably in the first movement’s oboe and horn figures. A couple of moments of loose ensemble detracted little from a superb performance, and Argerich was on her feet with the last notes still ringing. She was greeted with a huge standing ovation, a rare thing for Manchester audiences, and returned after many cheers and bows, slightly bashful-looking, for a fine encore of Schumann’s “Traumes Wirren” from the Fantasiestücke Op. 12. The collective feeling in the interval was that we had witnessed something quite special.

The Pärt and Bartók were worthy of high praise in their own right. The latter’s 1936 Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste opened the evening with a crisp, percussive flourish. Before the concert, Takács-Nagy spoke of early memories of hearing his great grandmother sing Hungarian folk tunes to him, and it quickly became clear how easily the caprices of Bartók’s writing come to him. He brought out the exotic textures with gusto, as he did later for Pärt, but retained a tight grip of control. He eschewed a baton and rostrum all evening, and seemed all the more engaged with his players for this. Communication between a symmetrical string section, divided either side of David Kadouch at the piano, was excellent, especially in the antiphonal passages of the second movement. The direct, sharp edged string sound worked very well here, bouncing back and forth across the stage with such rhythmic clarity that the piano and percussion interjections felt well blended. After an atmospheric third movement (the “night music”), the tightly wound energy of the finale made for a pleasing close.

There was a strong feeling in the interval that the Beethoven would be a hard act to follow. The orchestra returned to the stage reinforced for Arvo Pärt’s Lamentate (2002), with David Kadouch at the piano again, facing out into the audience with the lid down. Benjamin Skipp’s programme note describes the work as “A postmodern versioning of a fully-orchestrated piano concerto”. It was quite a revelation, a long arc of ten sections, each with distinctive character.

There were many outstanding moments; some highlights were the opening, pure-toned trumpet/trombone duets, some fine woodwind control and wonderfully spacious, unhurried playing from Kadouch near the end. The percussion effects were well carried off, including use of a cello bow on the vibraphone and echoing cannon fire above an excellent horn melody. There was a passage of immaculately crisp, pianissimo pizzicato from a string section which had played well all evening. It was disappointing that some widespread, unstifled coughing had to be silenced by a raised hand and wry smile from Takács-Nagy at one point, but otherwise the audience seemed to enjoy the cool, reflective atmosphere.

This was a remarkable evening, and credit must go to all involved for pulling off such an event.