POET OF THE CELLO

Steven Isserlis

‘As a cellist and musician, Shafran was unlike anyone else. His vibrato, his
phrasing, his rhythm all belonged to a unique whole; his astounding virtuosity conveyed a musical
personality that retained the passion, the simplicity and the poetry of a great Russian folk singer. He
was incapable of playing one note insincerely; his music spoke from the soul’


Jewish Romantic. Eyes closed. Tapping foot. Bow frequently at the tip, ‘hair on the loose side’.
Daniil Borisovich Shafran was born in Petrograd (Leningrad), 13 January 1923. He studied with his
father, principle cellist of the Philharmonic; and then (from 1933) Alexander Shtrimer at the
Conservatory. While still a boy, his concerto début confirmed his prodigy status – Tchaikovsky’s
Rococo Variations under Albert Coates (of Scriabin, Prokofiev, Rubinstein, Horowitz association).
In 1937, younger than permitted, he won the USSR All-Union Competition – victory bringing the
1730 Amati he was to use throughout his concert life: a ‘slightly smaller than standard size’
instrument enabling him, as he put it, to use his fingers with ‘boldness and daring’, to employ
‘unusually large stretches’ and to make generous use of the thumb, ‘my holy of holies’.
During the Great Patriotic War, aged twenty, he moved to Moscow, to take up a position as Soloist
of the Philharmonic Society. Between 1949 and 1953 came three important awards. Joint first, with
Rostropovich his slightly younger compatriot, at the 1949 World Democratic Youth Festival,
Budapest. Joint first, again with Slava, at the 1950 Hanuš Wihan Memorial International
Competition, Prague. And, the year Stalin and Prokofiev died, the 1953 USSR National Prize.
From the late 50s and 60s onwards Shafran joined the elite circle of KGB-monitored Gosconcert
artists touring the West and Far East – though without the frequency enjoyed by several of his peers.
1959: Rome. 1960: New York City. Carnegie Hall (Rococo Variations); recital (Schubert
Arpeggione, Shostakovich Sonata); RCA stereo album. 1964: London. 1965: first Japanese tour
(including Haydn’s Second Concerto with the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra). In the post-USSR
Yeltsin period, accompanied by the pianist Anton Ginzburg, he came to London for two successive
seasons (1995, 1996), offering some of his big sonata repertory at the Wigmore Hall. He also visited
elsewhere, including Australia.
‘One might describe him as an epitome of the classic Russian intellectual […] willing to sacrifice
his career for principles that he held high … As [he] grew older, his playing became more and more
personal. He simply ceased to care what others thought and he played exactly how he wanted to
without fear of being judged. Some people criticized him because they felt he didn’t project well in
large halls, and this used to really bother him. It wasn’t until when he was in his 70’s that he
stopped being afraid of playing quietly. He knew that he played with great nuance: vibratos ranging
from nothing, to a slight shimmer, to wide, and with various shades of dynamics, including piano,
pianissimo, and pianississimo. He finally stopped worrying about whether he was audible and just
followed his musical instincts, including whispering with his cello … [he] or my mother always
sent telegrams to Mr Rostropovich on the latter’s birthday. This gesture was never reciprocated,
however …. our family did not hear from Rostropovich or his wife [Galina Vishnevskaya] when
Daniil died, even though they were in Moscow at that time. Rostropovich had many opportunities to
play when he was in Russia and he was very well supported by the Soviet government. He played in
many venues: in the fields of collective farmers, at the Moscow Conservatory, and with various
orchestras. He also taught at the Moscow Conservatory and in Leningrad … [Daniil] wasn’t
supported to the same degree. For example, there were no press announcements of his last concert
at the Moscow Conservatory in 1993 and the hall was only half filled. The concert was not reviewed either. He preferred to play in other cities, such as St Petersburg or abroad, where he was treated with more respect’(Vera Guseva, Shafran’s step-daughter, 2003).


Steven Isserlis

We met at the House of Composers in Moscow [summer 1987]. Shafran is a
distinguished looking man, with a quiet, individual charm. Having known him only through his
passionate, larger-than-life playing, I had expected a correspondingly exuberant personality (like
that of his compatriot Rostropovich). At first I was disappointed that he was not more of a bear-
hugging extrovert, but I soon warned to him. He referred to me as ‘my young friend’ – which I was
proud to accept!
Talking with him, it seemed surprising that such an impeccably polite, soft-spoken man should be
the cause of any controversy – and yet Shafran is one of the most controversial string players of
today. There are those who love his playing, and those who denounce it fiercely; very few react
with indifference. Personally, I loved his playing when I first heard it, on a record of Shostakovich
sonatas and the Schubert Arpeggione with the pianist Lydia Pecherskaya, made in the US in 1960;
and, while I have totally alienated from some of the many recordings I have heard since then, I have
always loved the sincerity, the originality, and the sheer singing beauty of what I consider to be his
best playing. His is a thoroughly Russian, vocal style of playing; he is like a Russian singer whose
voice happens to be a cello! Few people would deny, after hearing his records, that his is a unique,
compelling voice. Chancing to meet an old cellist at an orchestral concert in Moscow, I asked him
what he thought of Shafran. ‘Ach,’ he exclaimed, raising his hands and eyes reverently, ‘Shafran,
Shafran, Shafran!’
I asked Shafran if had ever played chamber music during his career. ‘Very little,’ was the reply. He
explained that in his youth [the Stalinist 30s and 40s], chamber music was not considered important
for a soloist. ‘Now all musicians understand how important and necessary it is to pay great attention
to it.’ He did, however, play sonatas with several great musicians, including Richter, Enescu and
Carlo Zecchi. He has vivid memories of playing with Zecchi [in the 50s]. They happened to meet,
and Zecchi suggested that they play the Beethoven A major Sonata for the radio a few days later.
Shafran asked if they could rehearse the next day. ‘Ah, carissimo Daniil, no time, no time! Call the
day after.’ Shafran duly called. ‘Ah, carissimo Daniil, no time, no time! Let’s arrive early at the
studio.’ Shafran turned up more than a day early – but no Zecchi. Eventually he arrived, five
minutes before they were due to begin. They had a hurried discussion about certain points, without
playing a note; then it was time to begin. Zecchi had one request: ‘Please, let us play it right through
without stopping’. They played it, repeated just a couple of passages, and then went to listen to it.
Shafran wondered if they could do some retakes. ‘No time, no time!’ So Zecchi went back to Italy –
and shortly thereafter a [Melodiya] record of this performance appeared in the shops! It was, as
Shafran puts it, ‘an interesting experience!’
When I questioned him about the most immediately recognisable feature of his sound, his vibrato,
he spoke up strongly for individuality. ‘In my opinion, it would be very boring if everybody had the
same colours. Each musician must have his individual face. In vibrato, the most important thing is
to use it properly, with delicacy.’ Shafran feels that his musical ‘face’ was most strongly influenced
by three great artists – Richter, Fischer-Dieskau, and the ballerina Galina Ulanova. ‘It may seem
strange to say that my cello-playing was influenced by a ballerina. But I will tell you – I had the
great fortune of seeing this outstanding dancer when I was young, and she opened my heart and my
ears. She was extremely sensitive to music, and she taught me the philosophy of legato, that time
must always live, the line must never stop. If you play, for example, the Arpeggione sonata, you
must take the line from the first note to the last, never losing the atmosphere. One can learn for all
of one’s life – from everybody.’

Were he to be launched into space, both Shostakovich and Schumann would be among the composers whose music Shafran would choose to take with him. [Along with] Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms – and Vivaldi. He thinks that the music of Vivaldi (and that of his contemporaries) ‘as a phenomenal influence throughout the world. Why does this music bring
happiness to so many? I think that it is because the times in which we live are so troubled, so dramatic even, that human instinct naturally turns to this sort of music in order to escape from stress’. He is in no danger, however, of taking up the baroque cello! His Amati is strung up with Prim A-string, Pirastro-Chromstal D, Prim G and Tomastik-Wolfram C.
At the age of 64 (Paul McCartney would be proud of him!), Shafran seems as active as ever, still practising, as he has always done, six to eight hours a day. If his idiosyncracies have undeniably increased with age, they have by no means diminished his seriousness of musical intent.
[The Strad, August 1987, abridged and adapted]


Rob Cowan

Shafran cuts a dignified stage profile, although he’s not above playing to the gallery
[He] has a habit of either suspending vibrato altogether, greatly intensifying it or applying it
gradually, rather like an old-world crooner. His sound sports violent dynamic extremes, dipping
from vibrant overkill to mellow hum and with more concern for tone than for line. It’s the sort of
playing that we occasionally heard from the young Rostropovich, but while Slava has cooled to
relative sobriety, Shafran retains his youthful, over-ripe personality.
[Independent, 27 April 1995]

Margaret Campbell, The Great Cellists, Victor Gollancz, London 1988
Steven Isserlis, ‘Soviet Enigma’, The Strad, August 1987
Steven Isserlis, ‘Daniil Shafran’, Classicus [ www.classicus.jp ] 1998
Tim Janof, ‘Conversation with Vera Guseva’, Internet Cello Society [ www.cello.org ]
September 2003
Mark Silberkvit, ‘A Conversation with Daniil Shafran’, The Way They Play Vol VIII
[Samuel Applebaum & Henry Roth] © Paganiniana Publications Inc, Neptune City 1986


From Ateş Orga’s ‘Poet of the Cello’ essay, Daniil Shafran Edition, Historical Russian Archives,
Brilliant Classics 93096, Netherlands 2006.

Today marks the centenary of Daniil Shafran (died February 7, 1997). Schumann and Kabalevsky.