by Tim Janof

This brief interview is with Daniil Shafran's step-daughter, Vera, through e-mail.

Daniil Shafran (1923-1997) was one of the great Russian cellists. He began playing cello at the age of 6. Subsequently he continued his studies with professor Alexander Shtrimer (1888-1961) in a special music school for children at the age of 8. He won first prize at the USSR All Union Competition at the age of 14. At the time, he was below the age limit but the competition committee approved his entry. He was given the Antonio Amati cello made in 1630 as a prize. He used this instrument ever since for all his career as a concert cellist. The second cello concerto of Kabalevsky was dedicated to him. He recorded the cello sonata of Shostakovkich with the composer himself.

TJ: What was Daniil like as a person?

VS: He always was even-tempered, quiet, and practically never entered into a conflict. If he felt that a person was unpleasant, he simply ceased to talk with that person.

He tried not to let his professional life affect his family life. The exceptions to this were when there were concerts in the evening. He would get very nervous before performances and he became very withdrawn the day of the concert, barely saying a word. The family accepted this as the sacred torment of his creativity.

One might also describe him as a epitome of the classic Russian intellectual. He was highly educated, very humble, and willing to sacrifice his career for principles that he held high. When he was chairman of the jury in the Tchaikovsky Competition, for example, he felt his primary role was to do his best to ensure a fair competition. He always looked at a contestant's musical qualities and talent instead of which teacher he or she studied with, or which person the Communist Party wanted to win. It is because of Daniil that an American cellist, Nathaniel Rosen, was awarded the Gold Medal in 1976, which created quite a sensation in Russia.

What were his practice sessions like?

He practiced five or six hours every day, constantly changing fingerings and trying to find just the right sound.

Was there a rivalry between your father and Rostropovich?

There are no stories that I am aware of about Daniil and Mr. Rostropovich's relationship. I do not recall this subject ever being discussed in our family either. In official interviews, Daniil always described Rostropovich as a genius, as well as a very good cellist and conductor. Daniil or my mother always sent telegrams to Mr. Rostropovich on the latter's birthday. This gesture was never reciprocated, however. And our family did not hear from Rostropovich or his wife when Daniil died, even though they were in Moscow at that time.

Did the Soviet government treat Daniil differently than Rostropovich?

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. His career was flourishing.

Daniil also had a good career in Russia, but he 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.

Why was he not honored by the 'establishment' when he died, not even with a headstone for his grave? He was a historically significant cellist and he certainly deserved more recognition that he received.

His headstone was my arduous task to contend with. After Daniil's death we received some telephone calls and letters asking if we would like to sell Daniil's 'Amati' cello. This was unnerving because it is dangerous to be rich in Russia because of the Russian Mafia. We were afraid both to sell the cello and have a large sum of money in our hands, and we were afraid to keep the valuable cello in our home. We decided to donate it to the State Museum of Musical Culture instead. In retrospect, this was a mistake because the instrument isn't played; we should have given it to the State Musical Collection instead. Anyway, the director of the Museum promised to honor Daniil with a monument. We heard this promise repeatedly for three years; he kept claiming that the delay was due to the financial situation in Russia. We finally gave up. Then Steven Isserlis, Daniil's and my close friend, decided to help with a headstone. Steven managed a Fund named 'The Daniil Shafran Memorial Fund' in London and wrote to some musical magazines to promote it. At the same time my friends in Russia helped me to do a scandal piece on Russian TV and we received many supportive calls. A director of a large stone factory ended up donating a headstone, and I used the money from the fund instead to publish a book about Daniil, called Daniil Shafran - cello solo, which is only printed in Russian at the moment.

What was Daniil's musical approach based on? Some consider his playing to be idiosyncratic.

Daniil was a Romantic and saw himself as a creator when he played, in a sense. He felt it was his duty to be a transmitter of a composer's personal message, but he embraced the notion that the music could not help but be filtered through his own soul. He carefully studied the text and did his best to understand what the composer wanted, but he also gave himself permission to be a free-thinking and feeling artist. I suggest your readers check out his recording of the Prokofiev Symphony Concerto (Sinfonia Concertante), which is now available at Cello Classics, as well as his recording of encore pieces on the Aulos and Yedang labels. These are wonderful examples of his playing. Also seek out a recording of his Shostakovich and 'Arpeggione' Sonatas; he played them throughout his career and few can play them with his unique combination of freedom, tragedy, and intensity.

There is a recent release of a recording of the first Shostakovich Concerto by Regis Records. Given that Daniil never learned that piece, and given that it doesn't sound like him at all, I suggest people stay away from this recording.

Daniil's style certainly evolved over the years. 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 late 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.

Daniil continued to be deeply interested in playing and learning new music right up until his death. He loved to explore lesser known works and thanked God that others were given the opportunity to hear these works in his recitals. Everyone who listened to him play and who understood him as a person realized that he had a unique insight into music. I feel confident that his legacy will endure.

September 2003

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