A soft breeze wafted through the Music Academy of the West’s Lehmann Hall on Saturday afternoon as cellist Geoffrey Rutkowski presented a recital of masterworks by Ludwig van Beethoven, Sergei Prokofiev and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Rutkowski, principal cellist with the Santa Barbara Symphony, was presented here by the UCSB Department of Music, where he is a member of the faculty. He was accompanied in the program’s first half by pianist Charles Asche and in the second half’s Rachmaninoff by Natasha Kislenko at the keyboard.

When musicians of such caliber play, there is always a deeply spiritual aspect to the performance. Saturday’s concert was no exception.

Rutkowski began with Beethoven’s Sonata in D Major, Opus 102, No. 2, composed in 1815. The first movement, allegro con brio, was powerful, with the soloist’s characteristic “singing” tone. He played the second, adagio con molto sentimento d’affetto, with great depth, and the final movement, allegro, rose to an even more emotional peak.

This was followed by the Sonata in C Major, Opus 119, written by Prokofiev in 1948 after the cataclysm of World War II. The piece began with the movement andante grave – moderato animato, perhaps even with more depth than the Beethoven. The middle movement, moderato, reflects not only the rigors of war, but the customary problems with Stalinist repression that followed. However, Prokofiev ended the work with a third movement, allegro ma non troppo, that features an almost playful dialogue between cellist and accompanist.

After a brief intermission, Rutkowski was joined in the Rachmaninoff Sonata in G Minor, Opus 19 by Kislenko, a remarkable pianist who is also on the faculty at UCSB. Rachmaninoff dedicated the work to cellist Anatoliy Brandukov, and accompanied him at the piano when the work premiered in Moscow in December 1901.

Rachmaninoff always said that the work was really in two equal voices, cello and piano. Rutkowski and Kislenko were beautifully matched in the four-movement piece, with the cello leading the way and the piano embellishing the themes.

Here again, the music had a deeply spiritual aspect. The program noted that Rutkowski’s cello was made in 1689 by Matteo Goffriller, a Venetian master luthier sometimes compared to Antonio Stradivari or Carlo Bergonzi. Rutkowski’s playing consistently measured up to that lofty standard.

It was impossible not to reflect that this very “modern” Rachmaninoff sonata was written before World War I, before the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, while the composer was still a young man. It is also instructive to recall that in this period the composer was criticized for this very modernity and sank into a serious depression. Fortunately, he was able to make a recovery and go on to compose the many masterpieces we cherish to this day.

— Margo Kline covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor.