Janos Starker (July 5, 1924–April 28, 2013)

Janos Starker (July 5, 1924–April 28, 2013)

The world of music has suffered a great loss: the great cellist and distinguished teacher Janos Starker died on April 28, 2013.

Starker’s public career was at the highest level of distinction. Like most great musicians, he was a child prodigy, starting public performance at six and making his official debut at fourteen. The war intervened: he was imprisoned by the Nazis and lost his two older brothers.

After the war, in spite of this tragedy, his career was meteoric. His 1947 recording of the Kodaly Sonata, widely regarded as unplayable before the recording appeared, won the Grand Prix du Disque and set him on the way to enduring fame. In 1948, he immigrated to the United State, joining the Dallas Symphony as principal cellist, and in 1952 joined the Chicago Symphony in the same position. In 1958 he moved to Bloomington to become part of the music faculty of Indiana University while continuing his solo career. Starker was dedicated to his teaching and often said that he could not imagine playing only, without also teaching. (He had begun teaching while still a child—he took his first pupil when he was age eight).

Starker’s concert career was dazzling, including highly acclaimed performances as soloist with a great many of the world’s most celebrated orchestras and conductors. And his recording career was unique in its quantity and quality. He made well over one hundred fifty recordings, including the works of the standard repertoire multiple times and new compositions as well as less well known older ones. Starker was associated with many recording companies over the years: Period and EMI in the 1950s, including another recording of the Kodaly Solo Sonata for EMI (which he described to me later as having paid for his backyard swimming pool); famously with Mercury in its heyday, including spectacular recordings of the Bach Suites and the Dvorák Concerto; later with Decca/London (the remarkable recording of Bloch’s Schelomo is one of Starker’s greatest masterworks), and later still with Philips, Sefel, Delos, and, in his final series of recordings, RCA. All the recordings are musically remarkable. Consistent excellence was one of Starker’s goals; he had no patience with artists who only deliver when the spirit especially moved them. But some of Starker’s recordings are, as it were, especially special and seem to reach almost beyond human capacity in their combination of technical mastery and intensity of musical expressiveness.

And fortunately for future generations, many of his recordings also captured well his tone of unique beauty and intensity. While the Mercury recordings are strikingly immediate, it was really Delos and RCA who best captured the pure beauty he drew from the cello.

Starker’s popularity with the public never quite reached the level of Rostropovich or, later, Ma. But the esteem in which he was held by critics, and indeed all who understood cello playing, was and is at the highest level. Few cellists would argue with the idea that for sheer virtuosity and technical mastery he along with only Emmanuel Feuermann for company occupied the highest peak. And for people who appreciated his style, compounded of apparent reserve, especially in performance demeanor, and underlying intensity of expression, there was no one else like him musically.

Starker had a profound influence on how cellists played. He established once and for all that the cello could be completely exempt from any trace of clumsiness, of any feeling that it was a little bit unwieldy. The cello in Starker’s hands was as gracefully and elegantly playable as the violin and playable at the same time when the occasion demanded, with great power. And he established new technical frontiers. The Kodaly Sonata after his memorable performances both live and recorded went from being regarded as unplayable to being an almost required part of the repertoire of any cellist with claims of virtuosity. And in established works, he raised the technical standards in ways not at first obvious but with real impact. An example: In the Dvorák Concerto, there is a dramatic chromatic scale in octaves. Historically this was played on one bow, almost as a glissando, with the notes not very cleared articulated. Starker in performance and also in his printed edition of the work introduced the idea of playing each note of the erstwhile semi-glissando with a separate bow, with each note precisely articulated. The effect is spectacular—and must have seemed at first impossible to execute. Thus the technique of instrumental playing evolves bit by bit, in the hands of genius.