Obituary: Daniil Shafran

The great Russian cellist Daniil Shafran seldom appeared in Britain but when he did the hall would be packed with celebrities and fellow cellists and their response was overwhelming. Because of his highly individual style, Shafran aroused strong feelings. To his admirers, he was regarded with an almost religious reverence; to the unconvinced, he remained an enigma.

I heard him at the Wigmore Hall in June 1995 and I found his performance riveting, even if the risks did not always come off. His playing revealed a profound musicality and a subtle lyricism producing a tone that was rich and mellow. Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect was his ability for painting every possible tone colour at will.

Shafran was born in 1923, in Petrograd (which the following year became Leningrad), and was the son of the principal cellist of the Leningrad Symphony Orchestra. From early childhood he begged to have lessons on the cello but his father, who held strong views on teaching, resisted his request until he was eight years old. He told him that he could learn provided he was prepared to work hard and devote his life to becoming a professional musician. Otherwise he should forget it. The boy chose to accept his father's challenge and never complained about the long hours of practice which were expected of him. A legacy from this time was that throughout his professional life he would always put on full evening dress for the final rehearsal of any performance: his father maintained that an artist could be compared with a soldier planning an operation and a dress rehearsal was de rigueur.

At the age of 10, Shafran was admitted to the Special Music School, part of the Leningrad Conservatory, as a pupil of Alexander Shtrimer, who was not only a first-class teacher but also knowledgeable in art and literature and all things cultural. Therefore, from an early age, Shafran's approach to music was multi-dimensional.

It was Shtrimer who was responsible for Shafran's tone colour. He maintained that a musician must be aware of everything going on around him, should know about the colours of the grass, the trees and the sky and be able to express the drama in everything. Shafran gave me an example - Debussy's Claire de Lune. His teacher once asked him: "Have you ever seen moonlight? You must see it before you can play it." At that moment I recalled Shafran's playing of that piece as an encore when he almost physically re-created the chill of the moonlight.

Shafran made his first solo appearance at the age of 12 when he played two virtuoso pieces by David Popper, Spinning Song and Elfentanz. That same year he made his public solo debut playing the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra directed by the British Albert Coates, for which he received rave reviews. He told me that Coates gave him an excellent piece of advice which he never forgot. "Never hurry on and off the platform but stroll as if you are taking a leisurely walk in Hyde Park."

Shafran made his first recording of the Rococo Variations in 1937 when he was only 14, and the same year entered the National Competition in Moscow. As he was under age the judges allowed him to play first, but he confounded them by taking first prize, thus defeating all the adult candidates. Part of the prize was the presentation of a beautiful Antonio Amati cello that he played always for the rest of his life, and loved as if it were his child.

In 1943, Shafran became a soloist with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra and toured internationally with them meeting success everywhere he went. He won the International Competition in Budapest in 1949 and the following year shared the first prize in the Prague International Competition with Rostropovich. He made his American debut in 1960 at Carnegie Hall, his British debut at the Wigmore Hall in 1964 followed by his orchestral debut playing Prokofiev's Symphony Concerto at the Royal Festival Hall.

In 1971 the Soviet government conferred upon Shafran the title of People's Artist of the USSR. He served on the jury of many international competitions and from 1974 until his death, he chaired the jury of the cello section of the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.

For the last 10 years or so he gave master-classes all over Europe and in Japan. In 1995 he gave one at the Menuhin School in Stoke d'Abernon, Surrey, where reports were enthusiastic. He held strong views on the teaching of the present time: "I think many teachers today are obsessed with technical perfection and because they are not themselves aware of the importance of the emotional aspect of playing, they are unable to pass it on," he told me.

Although his playing was so passionate and charged with emotion, as a man he was courteous, rather reserved and possessed of an old-world charm. He will be remembered as one of the legends in a musical world dominated far too often by clinical perfection.

Daniil Shafran, cellist: born Petrograd 13 January 1923; married (one daughter); died Moscow 7 February 1997.