Martha Argerich, framed by her piano, and the conductor Antonio Pappano with the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in a memorable concert on Wednesday night at the Kennedy Center. (Photo: Jati Lindsay) (Jati Lindsay )
Classical music critic

There was an orchestral concert at the Kennedy Center on Wednesday night, but it wasn’t the orchestra that most of the capacity audience had come to see. It was an elusive, legendary, 76-year-old pianist known for her cancellations. Crowding into the lobby outside the Concert Hall, people reminisced about the last time they had heard her live — 30 years ago, someone said — or the last time they were supposed to hear her live, only to have her cancel the performance. I will only believe it, one woman said, when I see her walk out onstage. And then: there she was.

Martha Argerich, her mane of gray hair cascading down her back, entered slightly haltingly, closely followed by the conductor Antonio Pappano. She nodded at the roar of applause, not ungraciously, but with the air of one discharging a necessary task. And she sat down at the piano and, with a kind of tender inexorability, a sense of a gentle force of nature, like a powerful underwater current, gave a dazzling performance of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto.

Argerich calls Prokofiev one of her “best friends,” and refers to this concerto, which she first recorded with Claudio Abbado in the 1960s, “chloroform” — so familiar she could play it even if unconscious. But there was nothing unconscious about the performance. Driving in places, limpid in others, it remained wholly focused on the music and its architecture so that the work’s many technical challenges, rather than standing out, only reinforced the larger message. Argerich’s performance — with its signature combination of fluidity and force delineating each variation in the concerto’s second movement, allowing air and spaciousness even in the hell-for-leather playing of the final movement — illuminated the piece with a steady light that brought out each of its facets with sharp clarity, a new sparkle. And the audience listened raptly, and got to their feet and shouted again when it was over.

Argerich may have been the draw for many, but the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia — Rome (jointly presented by the Kennedy Center and Washington Performing Arts) was a more than worthy partner. Pappano, a British-born and American-raised Italian perhaps better known for his leadership of the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, has been music director of this orchestra since 2005, and he has clearly supervised some striking developments. The orchestra’s name is familiar, but if American audiences didn’t know just how good it was, they have some excuse — it last appeared in this country in 1969.

On Wednesday, the final stop of the ensemble’s five-concert U.S. tour, and even dealing with the murky Kennedy Center acoustic that ruffled at least one entrance, the group showcased an opulent creamy string sound and glorious ensemble playing. Pappano conducts without showiness, with compact physical movements surrounding a palpable intensity of focus. Even before Argerich came out, Verdi’s Sinfonia to “Aida” — the long-form overture that he wrote after the work’s premiere and subsequently discarded — showed such precision and sensitivity and finely honed drama that it was clear it was going to be a wonderful evening.

And after the concerto, the two most famous tone poems by Ottorino Respighi — “The Fountains of Rome” followed by “The Pines of Rome” — showed the orchestra on the largest scale, with a full complement of percussion and harps and a piano spilling across the stage to animate the composer’s filmlike panoramas of the Italian landscape: from gentle winds caressing the opening sunrise over the Valle Giulia fountain, through the famous recording of a nightingale (the earliest use of a recording in an orchestra score) trilling out among the Pines of the Janiculum, to brass players mounting the balconies for the clamorous finale. The audience again roared its approval and was rewarded with two encores, a gorgeous rendition of Sibelius’s “Valse Triste” and the final section of Rossini’s “William Tell Overture,” played at breakneck speed.

Argerich, too, offered an encore. She has resisted playing alone onstage in public since the early 1980s, but Pappano resolved that challenge by sitting beside her and offering a four-handed piece, a movement of Ravel’s “Mother Goose Suite.” With its delicate crystalline flourishes contrasting with firmer, rounder tones at the bottom of the piano, it was like a little vial of jewels of contrasting colors — one of many highlights in a treasure of a concert.