Review by: Dan Davis

Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 5

Cellist Daniil Shafran (Brilliant transliterates his first name to Daniel) has become something of a cult figure, but his Russian recordings have been available only sporadically. So Brilliant’s 7-disc set of concertos and shorter solo works (mostly transcriptions) made between 1946 and 1984 is especially welcome, particularly at a price comparable to a pair of midrange reissues. The set leads with Bach’s Solo Cello Suites 2 through 5, played with bracing incisiveness and elegance within slightly Romanticized fast-slow contrasts, but compromised somewhat by close miking that gives his otherwise beautiful timbre a hint of nasality. That’s especially unfortunate as this effect recurs in some other works. Such sonic failings, typical of Soviet engineering of the 1940s and ’50s, should not be exaggerated though, since much in this set is eminently listenable, and only in a few pieces does distortion interfere with enjoyment.

For me, the highlight of the set is the last piece on Disc 7, Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, specifically the penultimate Variation, a Mozartian Andante sung by Shafran’s cello as if by a great lyric soprano and embodying the strengths of his artistry: extraordinary legato playing, tenderly placed rubatos that make the melody breathe, an emotional directness that springs from the heart of the player to the heart of the listener, a free, open top register, brilliant technique, pianissimos to die for, and passionate involvement. Fortunately, this great example of his art is captured in good sound, so Brilliant has to be wrong when it dates this live performance with Kondrashin as from 1949.

There’s much else to savor here too: a lyric reading of Prokofiev’s Symphony-Concerto; Shostakovich’s Second Concerto and Second Sonata, the latter with the composer at the piano; a ripe Haydn Concerto anachronistically but beautifully played; a sweeping Rachmaninov Sonata. There’s a host of shorter transcriptions, including Falla’s Suite populare Espagnole with equisitely-graded vibrato and dynamics, paired with Shchedrin’s In the Style of Albeniz, a deconstruction of Spanish gestures. Notable also is Shafran’s own arrangement of Schnittke’s Suite in the Olden Style, played with rhythmic liveliness and a Menuet movement that nails its satiric elements while respecting the work’s nostalgia for a bygone age.

Not everything in this set is perfect, but it’s all interesting–a feast of artistry by a great cellist. Super-budget though it is, this slim box in Brilliant’s admirable Historical Russian Archives series also includes a lengthy informative booklet. Strongly recommended.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: none for this collection

Various concertos, sonatas, & transcriptions by J.S. Bach, Tchaikovsky, Shchedrin, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Falla, Rachmaninov, others -

  • Daniil Shafran (cello)
    various accompanists

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