Yo-Yo Ma, one of the world’s greatest cellists, has had a career so tightly packed with unusual and imaginative musical adventures – among them his multicultural outings with the Silk Road Ensemble, a long list of starry chamber music collaborations and stacks of new works written for him by the best living composers – that it must be difficult to decide which repertory to take on tour.

But sometimes it makes sense to set the most dazzling projects aside and focus on traditional recital programs. That is what Ma and his longtime collaborator, the British pianist Kathryn Stott, are doing on their current tour, which began with a Portland Ovations recital Wednesday evening at Merrill Auditorium. Their program was devoted to Russian music from the first half of the 20th century. But if that strikes you as a limited palette, think again: Ma and Stott played three big works, each steeped in a different element of the Russian style – neo-Classicism by way of Stravinsky’s “Suite Italienne,” acidic brutality tempered by lyricism in Prokofiev’s Sonata in C major (Op. 119) and the dying embers of Romanticism, caught in Rachmaninoff’s Sonata in G minor (Op. 19).

Ma and Stott began with the Stravinsky, one of several arrangements the composer made from the score of his 1920 ballet “Pulcinella.” This is Stravinsky at his most playfully sarcastic, a reworking of a collection of little-known Baroque works by Domenico Gallo (although at the time, they were thought to have been by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi). They are a fascinating and delightful amalgam, with Gallo’s graceful melodies intact, but his harmonies, structures and rhythms deconstructed, tweaked and reconfigured with a light-spirited modernist gloss.

It took Ma and Stott a movement or two to take the measure of Merrill’s acoustics, so in the opening Introduzione and Serenata movements, the balances were slightly awry, with Ma playing softly and Stott often overpowering him. But that problem was settled by the time they reached the episodic Aria, with its expansive, outgoing cello line and sparkling piano figuration, and in the Tarantella and the Menuetto-Finale, Ma’s rich, singing tone and subtle approach to coloration were back in force, a reminder of everything that makes his playing so irresistible.

That’s not to suggest that he turns everything into sweetness and light. The Prokofiev Sonata, composed in 1949, juxtaposes sumptuousness and virtuosity with terror, qualities that seem at war with each other throughout the piece. Prokofiev wrote the Sonata, after all, for two spectacular musicians, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and pianist Sviatoslav Richter, and he played to their strengths. But Prokofiev also knew that Stalin and his functionaries were peering over his shoulder, ready to charge him with “formalism” and ban performances of his work, as had happened a year earlier.

Prokofiev’s bitterness is palpable in the brusque strummed figures, intense, acerbic themes and sharp accents of the outer movements. But hearing the work, you can also see the extent to which he sought to disguise these feelings – and, not incidentally, make the best use of Rostropovich’s and Prokofiev’s combination of iron-clad technique and deep musicality – in rich themes for both instruments, and even a touch of playful chromaticism in the central Moderato movement.

Ma’s and Stott’s achievement here was keeping these antithetical but equally crucial elements consistently in focus, with neither eclipsing the other. It was an uneasy reading of an uneasy work, which is how it should be.

The Rachmaninoff Sonata, composed in 1901, is blissfully free of the kind of political drama that animates the Prokofiev. Cellists have a love-hate relationship with it. Packed with lush themes, it is a centerpiece of the cello repertory, yet it is hard to escape the sense that Rachmaninoff, a virtuoso pianist who played the work’s premiere (with cellist Anatoly Brandukov) gave the piano much of the work’s best music.

Ma seemed unfazed by that. He brought his most ravishing tone and his most supple phrasing to the work’s long, flowing lines and deferred to Stott when Rachmaninoff put the piano in the spotlight. It was a perfectly weighted collaboration that showed both musicians at their best.

Ma and Stott played three encores from their recent “Songs from the Arc of Life” recording, taking their leave with an exquisitely gentle rendering of “The Swan” from Saint-Saëns’ “Carnival of the Animals.”

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

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