I first became aware of the genius of Daniil Shafran when I was about 12 years old, and my teacher, Jane Cowan, gave a talk about great cellists; towards the end of the evening, she played an excerpt from (I believe) Shafran's recording of Schubert's Arpeggione Sonata, with Lydia Pecherskaya. I was immediately 'hooked', and Shafran became my hero! My father's work as a metallurgist occasionally involved visits from foreign scientists, and on one occasion he brought a Russian lady to visit us (my father was born in Russia, and speaks the language fluently). I told this lady about my admiration for Daniil Shafran, and complained that one could find so few of his recordings in the West; thereafter, I would receive every so often a record, sent from Russia by this lady. These records became my greatest treasure! Every day I would listen to at least one of them - and make my friends and family listen as well. Soon we had quite a Shafran fan-club in our house!

The only problem was that I was becoming so obsessed with his playing that I was imitating it in my own playing; instead of finding my own voice, I was trying to copy his. My teacher regretted having introduced me to Shafran's recordings! So, for a few years, I tried not to listen to him; of course, his influence remained (and remains) strongly with me, but I tried consciously to avoid imitating his style of playing which was, of course, quite unique to him.

So it was with some trepidation that I decided after a few years that I was past the dangers of imitation, and it was safe to listen to him again. I was worried that I would no longer be entranced, that my earlier fascination would be dimmed. I need not have worried! As soon as I heard that velvety, passionate sound again, I was as enthusiastic as ever - and remain so to this day.

I found also that I felt an immediate bond with other admirers of his music. With both the pianists with whom I work most regularly these days, Olli Mustonen and Stephen Hough, an early sign that we were going to be close friends was a discovery of our shared admiration for Shafran - we felt like fellow-members of a secret society!

He was still a far-off figure, however (and, of course, he never played in London); although I asked people about him constantly, nobody that I met seemed to know him. When I made my first tour of the Soviet Union, in 1984, I was very disappointed to find out that he was away on tour; I was doubly frustrated when I saw a poster advertising a concert by him to be given about two weeks after I had left Moscow.

My second tour for Gosconcert was in 1987, and this time I was luckier. I persuaded the magazine 'The Strad' to give me a letter saying that they would like me to interview Shafran; this seemed to be my best chance of meeting him - and so it proved to be. I remember sitting absolutely transfixed as the interpreter called him at home to fix up the meeting. I met him at the House of Artists; of course, I recognised him immediately, and my heart thumped as I was introduced to my hero! We talked for about an hour; he was very polite, careful, guarded (it was still very much the Soviet Union in those days, even though times were changing). I can't say that I got to know him at all, but it was still thrilling just to sit and talk with this great figure in my life, to find out that he really did exist!

I still longed to hear him play live, however, and it seemed that this would never be. The next time I was in Moscow, in 1989, he was again away; and thereafter, with the collapse of Gosconcert, many years were to elapse before I returned there. One day, Olli Mustonen and I were at my home in London, watching a wonderful video of Shafran that I had been given; I lamented the fact that I would never hear this amazing playing live. Olli had a brilliant idea - 'Why don't we invite him ourselves?' And, in an alarmingly short space of time, events were in motion: Olli's Finnish agent, Tuula Sarotie, had managed to contact Shafran at his home; I had contacted the Wigmore Hall and found a suitable date, and had arranged for a British agency to manage the concert; the well-known instrument dealer and owner of a distinguished record label, Peter Biddulph, had agreed to co-sponsor the concert with Olli and myself; and soon, everything was fixed for Shafran's first London concert for thirty years! The only major thing left to be decided was the programme; Shafran had immediately suggested that he play Brahms' E-Minor Sonata, his own arrangement of Shostakovitch's Viola Sonata, and the Cesar Franck Sonata. Although I love to hear Shafran playing a wide variety of music, I have always particularly loved to hear him in Russian music; and I thought that British audiences would be enthralled to hear him in that repertoire. So I requested that perhaps, instead of the Franck Sonata, he could play, say, the Arapov Sonata or even the Prokofiev Sonata. I had quite a lengthy exchange of faxes with his agent, Viktoria Muravieva, about various programme possibilities. Finally I received a fax from her with a message from the great man himself: 'Maestro Shafran has a new idea for the programme. He suggests the following: Brahms E-Minor Sonata, Shostakovitch Viola Sonata, Franck Sonata.' I realised then that he was a man of strong ideas!

So finally came the day, in May 1995, for his recital. By coincidence, I was away in Finland playing with Olli when Shafran was scheduled to arrive in England, so I arranged for a driver-friend of mine to meet him at the airport, and for my parents to invite him, Madame Shafran, and Anton Ginzburg to their house for dinner two nights before the concert. I left my parents strict instructions to call me in Finland as soon as dinner was over. They did so, and reported that it had all been a great success, the absolute highlight being when they served Shafran with sherry trifle, a very English dessert - and he had loved it! His wife, Svetlana, had taken the recipe, and Shafran had made her promise to make it for him in Moscow.

I was home in London only just in time for the Wigmore Hall concert. There had been a lot of interest in the recital, and it had sold out weeks in advance. There was an air of excitement in the packed hall as the lights went down - I was terrified! All these years I had waited to hear my hero - and now it was about to happen; I was as nervous as if I had been playing myself. I need not have worried; from the first notes of the Brahms, Shafran turned all our pre-conceptions on their head, both musically and technically. Everything was utterly different from anything we had heard before - it was rivetting. It is true that, now in his seventies, he was not the perfect virtuoso that he had once been; but the sound; the imagination, the warmth were all as unique as ever. Particularly memorable were the 9 encores, each a gem. All in all, it was an unforgettable recital, and was received with huge cheers and ovations (also for the wonderful support of Anton Ginzburg).

Afterwards, I went back to the artists' room, stood in line to say hello to Shafran - and suddenly my nerve failed me! I turned away, scared to approach the great man. Luckily, my father was standing nearby, and knew that Shafran wanted to see me, so he took me to him and re-introduced me. Immediately, Shafran gave me a huge bear-hug, and we became, to my joy, friends. Afterwards, we went out to dinner with a large group of people, mostly musicians; and I think that I can honestly say that it was the only time in my life that I forgot to eat my dinner, so eager was I to observe Shafran in relaxed mode, to catch his every word! (Of course, I could not understand enough - I cursed the language barrier; but either through my very basic Russian or through others' translation, I caught a lot.)

I saw him only once more after that. A year later, someone else arranged another Wigmore Hall recital for him at a time when I had to be away (to my chagrin). I was at home a couple of days before the concert, however, so my wife Pauline and I invited him and his wonderful wife, Svetlana, to our house for dinner. Again, it was a dream come true! The hero of my youth in my home, meeting my wife and son - despite the language difficulty, it was a truly memorable evening. Of course, I had no idea when he left that I would never see him again; it seemed more like a beginning than an ending. Pauline; at least, was able to go to his recital - and loved it. After that, I was very happy to help to arrange for him to play at the Huntington Festival in Australia, run by my friend Richard Tognetti; but very sad to know (in retrospect) that it was to be his last concert. As Svetlana said, when I visited her in Moscow recently, 'he left us too early'. I feel privileged to have known him, and only wish that it could have been for longer; and I am so glad that my friendship with his family remains close.

As a cellist and musician, Shafran was unlike anyone else. At a time in which, thanks to various media, musical styles are converging, Shafran's voice remained apart. 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. We are fortunate to have recordings that, I am sure, will keep his memory alive for as long as people love to listen to music.

Steven Isserlis

Copyright 1998 by Steven Isserlis