Long, lean, and spilling over with youthful brio, cellist Sterling Elliott charmed his Davies Symphony Hall audience before he’d even played a note of his Shenson Spotlight Series recital on Jan. 18. Noting in preperformance remarks that both works on the program were in D major — “the key of glory” — Elliott had some unexpected praise for J.S. Bach and Felix Mendelssohn.
The former, he said with a grin, made an asset of being a little “grand and pompous” in his Cello Suite No. 6. Mendelssohn’s Cello Sonata No. 2, which would feature pianist Elliot Wuu, put the cellist in fanciful mind of “a dog being led out the door by a little kid.” The crowd got its own verbal high five: “Thank you guys for being here,” said Elliott.
Once he sat down and began to play, the performer’s seriousness of purpose, poise, and prize-winning pedigree took over. With a firm, slightly fibrous, supple tone and deft dynamic control, Elliott turned Bach’s Prelude into a beguiling conversation with itself. A phrase stated overtly returned in a pianissimo echo, as if a second cello were responding somewhere in the distance. There was a sense of both spaciousness and intimacy. It was anything but grand and pompous.
The discoveries continued in the Allemande, ripe with double-stops and a recurring, somber open-string low C. Through its bristling, incisive drive, Elliott’s reading of the Courante found room, as the Prelude had, to ponder and reflect on itself before hurtling to a big finish.
Only in the Sarabande did the performance falter, the slow movement’s component parts feeling disjointed without a fluid, felt through line. No matter how talented or committed, young artists, like the rest of us, need time and experience to apprehend the full amplitude of a great work.
The sag was soon forgotten as Elliott brought a dark, almost haunted character to the first Gavotte. The closing Gigue was full of a raw, borderline reckless abandon. Youth was at its best here, in a fearless sprint. The modest-sized crowd offered a full-throated response.
In Wuu, the cellist had an ideal partner at the keyboard for the Mendelssohn. The piece, full of virtuosic passagework and lithe playfulness, showcases the piano for much of the way. It wouldn’t be amiss to label the work Sonata for Piano and Cello. Wuu was in full, fluent command throughout.
That’s not to suggest that the string player didn’t have plenty to say. As they strode off together in the vigorous opening movement, Elliott and Wuu were in exuberant high spirits. In Mendelssohn’s inspired development, a tiny melodic cell expands to near symphonic dimensions, done with bolting, joyous momentum here.
Wuu brought an infectious, teasing wit to the opening figure of the Allegretto, with the cellist kicking in with quizzical pizzicati. A contrasting lyrical section came and went with breathing naturalness and allure. Elliott was at his best in the Adagio, answering the long opening passage of arpeggiated piano chords with an ardent, achingly tragic voice. Occasionally swamped by the piano early on, the cellist remained gracefully assertive through a festive final movement.
“This has been a blast,” Elliott told the audience, before returning to the stage with Wuu for a tender account of William Grant Still’s “Mother and Child” (1943). Simplicity turned softly radiant as a brief but gratifying evening came to a close.