Music: Playing to the gallery

Daniil Shafran Wigmore Hall, London
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The Independent Culture
Celebrities, connoisseurs and a plethora of cellists crowded the Wigmore Hall for Daniil Shafran's first UK recital in 30 years. A frequent prize-winner in his Russian homeland, Shafran made his debut in the early 1930s under Albert Coates. His records of Shostakovich (with the composer), Kabalevsky and Bach have inspired something of cult, while his greatest admirers - including Steven Isserlis, who lent his support to this recital - have helped perpetuate the legend.

Now in his early 70s, Shafran cuts a dignified stage profile, although he's not above playing to the gallery. The opening of Brahms's E minor Sonata paraded the fabled sensual tone: big, full and with a distinctive, typically Russian employment of vibrato. Shafran 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.

But there's a price to be paid: nowadays his intonation tends to wander way off-centre. Shostakovich's Viola Sonata sounded almost like a quarter- tone transcription; and while Shafran brought a Klezmer-style playfulness to the Allegretto and an elegiac warmth to the Adagio, the discolouration on certain notes was unacceptably distracting. A shame - because the "feeling" was right, the arrangement (Shafran's own) effective and pianist Anton Ginzburg gave a fine account of the keyboard part.

After the interval came the cello version of Csar Franck's Violin Sonata. This was an excessive as its predecessors, with copious tonal bulges, lashings of vibrato, theatrical pianissimos, approximate passage-work and an alarming cut in the last movement - or was it just a hasty page- turn? Still, the audience cheered and the grateful duo re-appeared for a delicious sequence of encores. "Now you really will hear something," said an informed colleague - and how right he was!

First came a tenderly muted Clair de Lune, then a version of Minstrels featuring guitar-like pizzicatos and much cheeky banter with Ginzburg. Other goodies included a playful Russian Dance by Rodion Shchedrin and Boccherini's ubiquitous Minuet. Best of all was a smoochy, seamless account of Ravel's smoky Pice en forme de habaera, beautifully phrased and as tonally alluring as anything Shafran achieved 30 years ago. At last, everything fell into place: style and sound were gainfully employed and Shafran's odd-ball brand of interpretative eroticism added to, rather than detracted from, the nature of the music. Maybe next time we hear him it can be in pieces better chosen to reflect his strengths and respect his weaknesses.