A keyboard legend and Italian orchestra strike sparks at Symphony Hall

October 23, 2017 at 11:00 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Martha Argerich performed Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 with Antonio Pappano and the fofofof sudnay night at Jordan Hall. Photo: Robert Torres

Martha Argerich performed Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra dell’Academia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia Sunday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Robert Torres

The Celebrity Series welcomed a musical legend to Symphony Hall Sunday evening. Martha Argerich, in a rare Boston appearance, made for an evening of keyboard poetry and fiery virtuosity in a concert with the Orchestra dell’Academia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, led by Antonio Pappano. 

Argerich’s vehicle of choice, Prokofiev’s blazing Piano Concerto No. 3, is a work that has defined her for flawless technique and penetrating musical mind. At 76, the Argentine pianist has fully retained both of those traits. Prokofiev’s concerto demands plenty from the soloist, and Argerich was in command of it all, unleashing the flurries of notes, hand over hand, in the outer movements of the concerto.

But Argerich’s most remarkable gifts rest in her soft playing. The cascading figures never resulted in crash-and bang-sonorities, as they often do in performances of this piece; instead her lines flowed smoothly from heavy chords to delicate passages. The music, in the process, had an intensity that bubbled just beneath the surface.

The second movement featured Argerich at her most colorful. The theme had a tinge of sarcasm while the first variation took off in a vibrant cascade of filigree. Variation two moved with a side-winding groove, and the third variation glowed with a cold light, like a death-haunted dream.  

Argerich also found a chamber-like intimacy with the musicians of the orchestra, in the way  her phrases blended smoothly with solo winds. Pappano led a sensitive accompaniment, drawing plush solos from the clarinets in the opening measures and coaxing crackling energy from the musicians in the concerto’s climactic passages. 

The Orchestra dell’Academia is strong in every section and capable of smooth cooperate blend. But, as with Argerich, the most remarkable aspect of their performance Sunday afternoon was the way the musicians approached quieter passages. Indeed, the fine musicians of this ensemble make subtlety into an art form.

In Respighi’s Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome, which made up the second half of the concert, some phrases sounded on the edge of a whisper, like light peeking out of the mist. In the “Pines near a Catacomb,” the off-stage solo trumpet transformed chords of depth and darkness into phrases of warm light. 

The full sections of both of these scores brought out playing of power and depth, and the details of these rich pieces were vivid without Pappano drawing undue attention to them. Brasses supplied rosy tone and vibrant texture in “The Trevi Fountain at Noon,” and in the “Pines of the Appian Way,” the music built to powerful heights. Roman trumpets and euphoniums set up on Symphony Hall’s second balcony, supplied sounds of gleam and resplendence.  

The opener, Verdi’s Sinfonia to Aida, was just as colorful. The lyrical phrases that mark this piece flowed in silky passages. Pappano took care to sculpt each melody as if an operatic aria. Details, here too, provided a highlight. The cellists shaped their melodies in a vocal arc.

There were encores aplenty. After the concerto, Pappano joined Argerich at the piano for “Empress of the Pagodas” from Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite. Both pianists found a sense of orchestral texture and color.

Two orchestral encores, Sibelius’ Valse triste and the gallop from Rossini’s William Tell Overture, returned the musicians to the grace and crystalline precision that listeners encountered all evening.

The next classical music event sponsored by the Celebrity Series will feature the St. Thomas Choir of Leipzig in music by Schütz, Schein, Bach, and Mendelssohn 3 p.m. November 12 at Jordan Hall. celebrityseries.org; 617- 482-6661

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