The Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History should put on a brighter face when hosting such a glowing young talent as British cellist Andrew Shulman. The museum's grim facade notwithstanding, his Friday recital at Baird Auditorium, cosponsored by the New England Conservatory of Music, was full of light and musical eloquence.
Opening with the always-satisfying Sonata in A Major, Op. 69, by Beethoven, the artist, playing a cello by David Rubio, one of a quartet of instruments built for his chamber ensemble, displayed an unusually bright tone and good attack on the Allegro Ma Non Tanto. Pianist Walter Delahunt was somewhat heavy-handed in this movement, although the piano part is melodious and follows the cello line so closely, it was hardly offensive. The relatively brief Adagio Cantabile came off particularly well, placid but robust -- a lake excursion on a crisp autumn day -- moving directly into an Allegro Vivace, which Shulman dispatched with properly expansive vigor.
The second piece, Sonata No. 1 (1939) by Bohuslav Martinu, composed shortly before Martinu fled Paris for the United States, showed Shulman's ability for percussive playing. The piano, being used here more as a rhythmic enhancer, gave the cello room to be heard, although many of the cello's low-register passages were lost (probably due to the acoustics of the auditorium). The Lento movement is fascinating, full of smoke and ashes, the cello playing a dirgelike melody only briefly relieved by brighter notes and closing with a repetition of questioning cello lines.
Following intermission was Sergei Rachmaninoff's Sonata in G Minor, Op. 19. This is a long and serious-natured work, structured more like romantic lieder with colorist notions in the keyboard part. Both pianist Delahunt and cellist Shulman gave the piece the heaviness and luxury it requires, particularly in the elegiac Andante movement. Delahunt did notably well with the persistent very-high-register playing. The final Allegro Mosso was celebratory, as befitted Rachmaninoff, who, having composed this sonata after being declared cured of a nervous disorder, no doubt felt the surge of restorative energy.