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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906 – 1975)
Cello Sonata in D minor Op.40 (1934) [21:43]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833 – 1897)
Piano Trio No.2 in C major Op.87 (1882) [27:14]
Daniil Shafran (cello); Lydia Pecherskaya (piano) – Shostakovich
Berl Senofsky (violin); Shirley Trepel (cello); Gary Graffman (piano) – Brahms
rec. (details from Daniil Shafran website) RCA Studio New York 1960 – Shostakovich and 1964 (from original release RCA Victor LM 2715) – Brahms
HIGH DEFINITION TAPE TRANSFERS HDCD184 [48:57]

available in Redbook CD, 24/96 DVD and HQCD.

Experience Classicsonline

 
HDTT are on to a good thing. In essence it is a very simple premise – they take classic analogue commercial reel-reel tapes, remaster them from the ground up and then individually burn CDs (or FLAC lossless downloads) to produce some of the technically best recordings it is possible to buy. Allied to the technical excellence they seem to have a pretty judicious touch as far as selecting repertoire is concerned. My previous encounter with an HDTT disc – Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic playing Richard Strauss live at the Salzburg Festival – made it onto my disc of the year list of six and I read Tony Duggan glowing review of the famous Horenstein/Mahler 1 with interest – one for my wishlist I think!
 
Ultimately, I have to say that my interest lies with the repertoire and the performances over and above the technical presentation. So it is a pleasure to be able to report that the two performances on this disc are very fine but one – the Shostakovich Cello Sonata is an absolute cracker. Daniil Shafran’s career to a degree was overshadowed by that of his slightly (four years) younger colleague Rostropovich. This was much to do with the fact that he toured internationally far less than Rostropovich and that the bulk of his recorded legacy was made for Melodiya with its limited distribution and relatively poor production values. Which makes this ‘Western’ recording from 1960 in New York all the more precious - the cover dates the recording as 1961 but I suspect that was a release year. Not that that was Shafran’s first recording of this magnificent sonata – it was already his third. His first (and the work’s) was a famous one with the composer at the piano and dates from 1946. I have never heard that performance or his second from 1957 on Supraphon featuring his first wife and long-time accompanist Nina Musinyan. I would encourage readers to seek out the many fascinating articles about this master cellist on the website dedicated to him at www.classicus.jp/shafran . In particular there is a warmly affectionate memoir from Steven Isserlis. From these one gets the impression of a powerful personality and certainly this is very evident in this performance. Fascinating to read also of his life-long association with just one instrument – a 1630 Amati. Certainly he has a unique sound which is produced from a combination of instrumental timbre, a very particular choice of vibrato and unique musical phrasing. It is very different from the more overtly muscular approach of a Rostropovich but after several listenings I have been completely swayed by the rightness of the sound and the interpretation. Everything you read about Shostakovich underlines the sardonic humour, the evasiveness - in the sense that he rarely publically revealed his inner feelings - of the man as well as pained passion of his music; Shafran’s performance catches every nuance. Right from the very first bar you are entering a quite unique sound-world. The tone is superbly focused and rich but the vibrato is tight, fast and neurotic. Don’t forget that this piece with its Opus number of 40 comes from the mid-1930s when Shostakovich was not yet thirty and still basking in the glory of his early state-approved triumphs. Yet this is far from being an optimistic work. Even the lyrical opening – another of Shafran’s particular gifts is the vocal/singing quality of his playing – soon descends into something more strenuous and troubled. I have to say, at this point, that the miracles of restoration that HDTT have accomplished are quite astonishing for a recording nearly fifty years old. The balance between cello and piano is ideal. All credit too to pianist Lydia Pecherskaya who is fully able to project the mercurial side of Shostakovich’s music as well as ride its technical demands. If you listen on headphones yes there is analogue tape hiss but so absorbing is the music-making that I dare you to notice it more than thirty seconds in. There is a strangely malevolent glee that inhabits this performance allied to mournful lyricism that is both unsettling and compelling at the same time. The second movement is one of those typically Shostakovichian Toccata/Scherzi that he made uniquely his own. Possibly in this movement is the only time I miss the muscularity mentioned above. Also, the famous glissandi harmonics in this movement register less remarkably than in other performances. But that being said Shafran is quite superb allowing the movement to dance more than is usual. As so often though the heart of a Shostakovich work lies in its slow movement. The landscape Shafran and Pecherskaya paint is painfully bleak. The piano then starts a stoical march over tolling bell-like figures using the very barest of musical textures [track 3 – 1:28] over which the cello sings a beautiful lament. Shafran phrases the music forward so the passage unfolds as one long poignant melody that gradually rises in pitch and intensity. Again I repeat it seems impossible that this recording is as old as it is, so alive and immediate is this performance. After the profundity of the third movement the finale can occasionally come as a relatively light-weight shock. Not here where the merry malice of Shafran pays dividends. I cannot think of any performance quite like it and I’m struggling for metaphors – a delight in the misfortune of others perhaps, a whistling executioner happy in his work. You can also hear Shafran’s unique fingerings too, his portamenti slides, as he shifts hand position, are as delightful as they are quirky and effective. The catalogue contains many fine recordings of this masterpiece but given Shafran’s close involvement with the composer this has to be considered a reference performance.
 
HDTT have proved to be somewhat idiosyncratic in some of their production choices and here is one; Isserlis in his article mentions Shafran’s recording of the Schubert Arpeggione Sonata as his Damascus Road introduction to the cellist. That performance was the original coupling of this Shostakovich on RCA. So why don’t we get that recreated here instead of a completely unrelated Brahms Piano Trio? In fact – this rather short disc could probably have included the Schubert as well! While I’m mentioning the quirks in presentation; hooray that the disc is supplied in a standard jewel case. The previous disc I received was in a DVD box.. However, the presentation of the disc is distinctly sub-standard. The “booklet” – actually a single folded piece of light-weight card - is poorly printed and contains reasonable (uncredited) notes about the pieces but not one single word about the performances or artists. Now come on HDTT – this is a disc aimed at a specialist collectors market. It would be fascinating to have an essay on the performers, why these recordings were chosen and the like. Instead we get a listing of mastering equipment. Actually, I do find that to be interesting too – but I’m not enough of a techy to understand why that equipment makes the difference which it very clearly does so an explanation of that would be good. One other oddity carried on from the previous disc I reviewed – the break between the two works is a very few seconds. It really does jar to lurch from the sound-worlds of Shostakovich to Brahms in such a short time. Would it have been too much to insert at least a ten second break? Lastly, the artwork is about as unappealing as it could be. If we used a point system in our reviews it would be ten stars for technical excellence and performance and one for presentation.
 
Coming back to the music – I’ve been putting off the Brahms part of this review as it leaves me a bit perplexed. In essence the actual source recording is far less appealing than the Shafran. Although dating from three years after it the Brhams suffers from a far harsher recorded environment. It reminds me in part of those Phase-Four experiments in the 1960s when stereo was used as an aural equivalent to technicolour with everything extremely delineated and closely miked and synthetically placed on a sound-stage. The playing is beyond reproach particularly if you like your Brahms muscular and athletic. Oddly, Gary (oops! – a cover typo has him down as Garry! – and by the way most sources spell Shafran’s first name as Daniil not Daniel again as listed on the cover) Graffman is the “money” name here but as balanced he is very much third amongst equals with the violin closest and cello next. Violinist Berl Senofsky was a major performer in his own right - the first and only American-born winner of the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels as I recall – but he never developed an international career that his playing merits. The recording is microscopically close but Senofsky’s playing is never compromised. However, I cannot say that this is a pleasurable listening experience. As it happens, I do prefer Brahms played in this unbuttoned vigorous manner so I greatly enjoyed the performance overall. I have enough faith in the skills of the HDTT engineers to be certain they have achieved all that could be with these masters. Sadly however this is a performance too compromised by the source recording to give unalloyed pleasure. A stunning Shostakovich in remarkable sound coupled with a good Brahms in that harsh spot-lit sound so often produced from American sources in the sixties.
 
As I said in my opening paragraph – HDTT are definitely onto a good thing and are a label to watch. If they lavish the care on the final product that they do on the resurrection of these peerless performances then all of their releases will become compulsory purchases.
 
Nick Barnard
 
 


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