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    At Symphony Hall, the grand return of a piano priestess

    Pianist Martha Argerich, who performed with the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia of Rome.
    Musacchio & Ianniello
    Pianist Martha Argerich, who performed with the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia of Rome.

    There is a sound, a special variety of collective whooping, that rises up from a large audience at the sight of an artist it admires deeply in its bones. No notes have yet been played, so the sound is not in response to any particular performance. It is the acknowledgment of many performances over many decades. It is the sound of a public giving thanks for a lifetime spent in pursuit of transformational beauty.

    The pianist Alfred Brendel, near the end, could get this kind of welcome. I also once heard it bestowed on the conductor Claudio Abbado when he returned to Berlin after a long absence. And on Sunday night, as the 76-year-old Argentine pianist Martha Argerich took the stage of Boston’s Symphony Hall after an absence of nearly three decades, the packed audience, as if by pre-arrangement, knew what to do. It conferred the sound. 

    These days Argerich, the reigning high priestess of the piano, does not perform frequently in the United States, and even when she is scheduled to appear, she is prone to cancellations. Indeed, pre-announced Argerich dates carry with them about as much certainty as a weather prediction made today for a random Monday in March. This can frustrate and disappoint fans, but it’s also refreshing. She is a soloist with the audacity to play when she is inspired rather than on command, and this too distinguishes her in a heavily bureaucratized classical music world, where concerts and repertoire are planned years in advance and where spontaneity is a quality that sometimes feels as if it has been surgically removed.

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    It also means that when Argerich does actually show up for a performance, an extra shiver of delight tends to make its way down an audience’s spine. Such was the case on Sunday, when Argerich came to Boston with the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia of Rome and its music director, Antonio Pappano, presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. And in a particularly bold and Argerichian move, she did not come to play a Mozart piano concerto or another work of kindred autumnal refinement. Rather, she showed up with Prokofiev’s youthfully clamorous and knuckle-busting Third Piano Concerto — an unabashed virtuoso showpiece with which she made her reputation many, many decades ago.  

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    Indeed, the story goes (as once relayed by her daughter Annie Dutoit) that Argerich first encountered the Prokofiev Third in Geneva in 1957 while sharing a small apartment with another Argentine pianist, María Rosa Oubiña, who was in the habit of practicing this particular score in the early morning hours while Argerich was still drifting in and out of sleep. Then “Martha would get up early in the afternoon, drink three or four espressos, smoke five cigarettes . . . sit at the piano and play the concerto by ear.” Apparently, her ear was so sharp that at first she even incorporated Oubiña’s early sight-reading mistakes. 

    Suffice it to say that for Argerich, this music is lodged somewhere deep in muscle memory. On Sunday, she walked out to the piano bench rather cautiously, but once seated, there was no hesitation. The piece begins with a dusky clarinet solo that eventually gives way to hurtling orchestral strings. At her first solo entrance, Argerich jumped fearlessly into the fray and simply never let up. Her technique remains an astonishing marvel of penetration and economy. In the outer movements her playing had all the percussive steeliness and motoric fury this music asks for. And in the theme-and-variations middle movement, which at one point drifts into a coolly transfixing nightscape, the piano took its place among the orchestra, joining with oboe and horn, singing out into the darkness.   

    After all parties present had roared through the work’s final bars, the ovation was swift and heartfelt — abating only some five minutes later, when Argerich sat down elbow-to-elbow with Pappano for a four-hands encore rendition of “Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas” from Ravel’s “Mother Goose.” Their rapport was deeply familiar, their playing full of air and light. Symphony Hall took on the feel of a living room.  

    Before and after the concerto, Pappano and his orchestra made clear they were a force to be reckoned with on their own terms. Color and character seem to waft upward from every corner of this historic Italian ensemble. And Pappano’s readings were infused with an almost tactile approach to the layering of sound as texture without ever sacrificing the music’s lyric imperative. 

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    The evening opened with a Sinfonia that Verdi wrote for “Aida” but later abandoned, and it closed with rousing accounts of two works by Respighi: “Fountains of Rome” and “The Pines of Rome.” We were in good hands, as this was the orchestra that gave the world premieres of both Respighi works, and I can’t recall ever hearing them played more idiomatically (picture a Rome native giving you a tour of some favorite haunts). Sibelius’s “Valse Triste” followed as an encore, and it contained one of loveliest pianissimos heard this season. Afterward, just as audience members began gathering coats, our genial Italian hosts had other ideas. As if to send off its guests with one last glass of Prosecco, the orchestra uncorked the “Galop” from Rossini’s “William Tell” — all sparkles and effervescence.

    Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia

    Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. At Symphony Hall, Oct. 22 

    Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.