Daniil Shafran: A Forgotten Master Revisited
By Henry Huang
February of this year marks the anniversary of the passing of Daniil Shafran, the great Russian cellist of this century. These days, while some major classical record companies are trying to sell their products better by doing things such as mixing ice-skating to the video of the Bach Cello Suites or marketing sex appeal, Shafran, an artist who had reached the highest level in his profession and devoted his life of making music by just playing the cello, seemed to be unjustly forgotten.
Shafran was born in Leningrad in 1923 to a musical family and began his musical studies at the age of six with his father; who also was a cellist. At the age of eleven he made his debut with the Leningrad Philharmonic and continued further studies at the Leningrad Conservatory. While still a student he won first prize in the National Competition for Violinists and Cellists held in Moscow and he was awarded a 1630 Amati Cello that he played for the rest of his life. Unlike many other Soviet artists of his time, Shafran did not make himself a celebrity in the West. He made a few concert tours to Europe, USA and Japan. He remained in the USSR, made his recordings almost exclusively for Melodiya.
My first cello teacher introduced Daniil Shafran's recording to me in 1974. She lent me an old, beat-up Melodiya 10" record of the Kabalevsky Cello Concerto No.1 made in 1954, one year after Stalin's death when the Soviet artists gained a bit more freedom of expression. The sound of the recording was, of course, not up-to-date (LP - MELODIYA : D 489/3567). Even at a young age, I was extremely impressed by the breathtakingly beautiful playing! I had never heard such passionate cello playing before - the opulent tone, the fast and intense vibrato, the immaculate techniques, the absolute intonation - no cellist before him (or after) could play like this. I was only able to listen to the first and second movement of the Kabalevsky Concerto. The part of the record that had the third movement was damaged so badly that it was not audible. It wasn't until last year that a friend from Japan sent me a tape of this recording. Finally I was able to listen to the complete recording for the first time.
Like many great instrumentalists, Shafran's style kept changing throughout his career. In the recordings he made between the mid 40's and the mid 50's, his playing was very secure and confidant. His vibrato was very intense, wide and fast. But there weren't many variations in color - the recording techniques in the old Russian days may be to blame partially. The Shostakovich and Rachmaninov Cello Sonatas are good snapshots of this period. (Revelation CD RV 10017). When he recorded the Shostakovich with the composer at the piano, he was only 23 years old. In the years to come, Shafran just played better and better.
Shafran's playing in the early 60's was slightly different from the 50's: In his RCA recording of the Schubert Arpeggione and the Shostakovich Cello Sonata made in 1960 (LP - RCA LSC 2553) and his Haydn D Major Concerto made in 1962(CD - BMG MELODIYA : 74321 40724 2), I noticed that he occasionally used the delayed or suspended vibrato that, to some string players, it may be unorthodox and eccentric although he produced beautiful, almost magical sound by doing it. Comparing these recordings of the Shostakovich Sonata made in 1946, his 1960 recording of the work was more mature. He played with more tone color and his interpretation of the work became deeper.
Shafran's period of most successful recordings began in the late 60's: He was at his best in making recordings of the works of the Romantic period and the modern Russian work - Kabalevsky Cello Concerto No.2. At this time, the recording technology was much improved compared to the 50's and the recordings captured his playing more truthfully than ever before. His technique was as brilliant as ever. There were much more variations in tone color and his dynamic had greater range. There was fierce intensity in his playing.
The Kabalevsky Concerto No.2 was recorded in 1967 with the composer at the podium and the work was dedicated to Shafran (CD - JVC/MELODIYA : VICC-2151 available in Japan only). This technically demanding work gave Shafran an opportunity to show his genius. He played those hair-raising, fast passages with great clarity and they sounded so easy in his hands. The slow final movement of the Concerto was a requiem that the composer intended to commemorate the war victims. Shafran played it with grace and in a meditative way. He made this concerto a heart-felt, moving work. Here he used more delayed vibrato then ever before. Sometimes he totally suspended vibrato. His bowing became very expressive when he played without vibrato. Whenever he used vibrato, it was extremely intense. The effect seemed to make the cello sound closer to a singing human voice.
Shafran's cello playing reached its peak in the 70's. In his 1970 recordings of Franck/Debussy Sonatas ( LP - MELODIYA CM 01937-38) and 1973 recordings of the five Beethoven Sonatas ( 2 LP's - MELODIYA CM 02797-800), his tone was even more opulent than before with a variety of tone colors. In the Franck Sonata, the dynamic contrasts were sensational, especially in the second and third movements of the Franck - he played with extremely strong forte and delicate, gentle pianissimo. His Beethoven Sonatas were also wonderful. He played the sonatas of the early period with great charm and buoyancy. The third sonata and the two sonatas of the late period were played in a somber and soulful mood, with his dark and sonorous tone. Unfortunately, these recordings are no longer available.
Like any other artist, Shafran was a human being and of course, was not always perfect. Not all Shafran's recordings were successful. For example, in his recordings of the Bach Suites made in the early 70's, the microphones were closely placed. These recordings don't have the characteristics of Shanfran's playing(CD - REVELATION RV10086). His Schumann Cello Concerto recorded in the early 60's with Kirill Kondrashin conducting was poorly recorded (CD - MULTISONIC :31 0180-21). The cello sounded thin and colorless. There was a long cadenza in third movement. I don't believe it was intended by the composer.
Shafran made a handful of recordings for the basic cello repertoires for Melodiya in the 80's. Works included Cello Sonatas by Brahms, Chopin and the Schubert Arpeggione. His playing in the 80's showed that he was still in his prime, it was more mature. He used rubato more freely and every note was of golden tone with absolute intonation. Also during this period, Shafran tried to expand the cello repertoires by transcribing works written for other instruments such as the Shostakovich Viola Sonata, the Four Serious Songs by Brahms and short pieces by Schumann. Only the Chopin, Brahms and Shostakovish works made it to the CD format briefly. However, when BMG bought the rights from Melodiya, these recordings were deleted from the catalog.
In 1983, when Shafran was 60 years old, a film about his cello playing was released in Russia with Conductor Termirkanov as the interviewer. This film provided a rare opportunity for music lovers to see how he played, his discussion on his philosophy of making music, his Amati and his performance. The brilliance of his playing was documented in this film. The viewer can sense his love and dedication to music. His eyes were closed at times as he was totally inside the music. He never had exaggerated facial expressions like some of his younger and more famous colleagues would do. He was totally truthful to the music. Watch him playing the Schumann Romance Op.94, No.1 originally written for Oboe and piano - Shafran made Schumann's music touch one's soul deeply! Shafran liked to play the open A string. When he played on the open A, his left hand would leave the fingerboard and he would make a gesture almost like conducting - a graceful sight. This film is available on LD and VHS from Toshiba/EMI available in Japan only (LD - TOSHIBA : WV045-3519). I was one of the very few fortunate people living in the west to be able to view this film. Thanks to my friend in Japan!
Although very little information about Shafran's life and his art were documented - not even the Toshiba EMI film gave a complete portrait of the artist. While I admire Shafran's dedication to music and cello playing, I also appreciate him as a man who didn't seem to care about fame, politics and publicity as some of his colleagues do. He never ceased to improve his art. He played his cello to the end of his life.
I urge record companies to release more recordings of Shafran. He left treasures to the music world. He deserves to be known to the younger generations as an important artist. His art should be remembered and studied. Many will benefit from it.
(c) Henry Huang 3/1998