There was a squeal of delight from the audience when Martha Argerich first stepped onto the stage of Carnegie Hall, then a roar. It had been nine years since the pianist's last performance in New York City, and the audience rose to its feet as she shyly weaved her way through members of the Santa Cecilia Orchestra to stand by the piano. Antonio Pappano set a briskly flowing tempo for the opening Andante of Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto, then took off like a shot in the Allegro. Argerich, when she entered, went faster still, giving the scurrying solo part a propulsive, nervous energy. Every note was clearly articulated, and chords and octaves were carefully voiced so that certain motifs sang out over the orchestra. Her playing balanced steely resolve with grace and charm. In lyrical passages, her rubato felt utterly spontaneous – mesmeric, in fact – and even when she was dashing up and down the keyboard, her phrasing had a compelling sense of direction.
The orchestra's playing of the deliciously acerbic theme that begins the second movement was bland and rhythmically soggy, but with the magic wave of a glissando, Argerich instantly brought the music back into incisive focus. Each of the five variations was vividly characterized, displaying a wondrous play of light, shade, and color. Then, in the Finale, she sprang like a tigress, attacking the complex figuration with elegant ferocity. The orchestra sounded clumsy by comparison, unable to match her rhythmic precision or support her pianissimos without stepping on her toes. She was always a slight step ahead, especially in the coda. Ultimately, it didn't seem to matter; the effect was electrifying.
For an encore, Argerich and Pappano raced through ‘Laideronnette, impératrice des pagodes’, the third movement of Ravel's Mother Goose Suite. Some details were smudged, but the overall effect was invigorating.
The program opened with the Sinfonia to Aida, a potpourri of themes from the opera that was eventually discarded by Verdi (who opted instead for a much slimmer Prelude) and rediscovered by Toscanini. Pappano's interpretation sacrificed some of the music's expressive intensity and atmosphere in favor of sleek dynamism.
Following intermission Pappano gave us the two best-known parts of Respighi's Roman Triptych, both composed for this orchestra while Respighi was on the faculty of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia. Fountains of Rome opened in an appropriate hush, but with pallid tone from the strings. Details were lost in a wash of sound and the woodwind solos did not have the sweet character Respighi requests. The scherzo-like depiction of the Tritone fountain was drawn in broad, impatient strokes, and the orchestra's tone became hard and dull in climactic passages. There was little magic or delicacy at the fountain of the Villa Medici; the strings sounded gauzily gray and the celesta part was far too loud.
Pines of Rome begins with images of children playing in the grove of the Villa Borghese, but Pappano's frenetic tempo was anything but playful, and a wealth of glorious detail was lost in the rush. Woodwind entrances were ragged in the catacombs scene, and the brass had cringe-inducing intonation issues. Clarinetist Stefano Novelli played the exposed solo in the Janiculum section with lovely velvet tone, but the rapt mood was spoilt by the strings who, when divided, sounded gluey rather than luminous (it might have helped had Pappano insisted they play softly, as indicated).
Respighi described the final section of Pines as a triumphal march, conjuring visions of past glories and a blazing, sunlit future. But there was something dogged in the step here, a lack of joy and rhythmic impetus that felt more harrowing than uplifting. It didn't help that the brass was (again) out of tune or that the overall balance sounded clogged and haphazard.
The first of two encores was a schizophrenic reading of Sibelius's Valse triste. Pappano began languorously, and although the strings sounded drearily wan in pianissimo, there was some frisson, at least. As the music gained momentum, however, Pappano became more impassioned, eventually driving the players into a frenzy, as if this were a wild gypsy dance. The orchestra impressed most in its second encore, the famous final section of Rossini's William Tell Overture. Here, at last, there was exhilarating effervescence. It made one wish Pappano had played the entire piece instead of the Sinfonia to Aida.