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Bach/Starker: Suites for Unaccompanied Cello Complete

Analogue Productions recently recut, on 45rpm vinyl, the performances of Bach’s Cello Suites that Janos Starker recorded for Mercury Records between 1963 and 1965. Starker later said of these landmark recordings, “Mercury Records, with a triumvirate at its apex, Wilma Cozart, Robert Fine, and Harold Lawrence, asked me to record the definitive version of the Bach Cello Suites. Those three people, whose contributions to the record industry have rarely if ever been matched, guaranteed the standards I was aiming at, and I felt I was ready. Definitive version? Nonsense. High level? Yes, I was and am satisfied with the results.”

For all his disclaimers, it’s widely agreed that Starker’s recorded performances of the Bach Suites are as close to definitive as any performance can be. The combination of musical intensity and beauty with his all but incomparable technique is irresistible. Arguably, only Feuermann achieved a comparable physical mastery of the cello, and on these Mercury recordings Starker was at the height of his technical powers. Starker’s style, in which expressiveness is abundant but all traces of schmaltz or gratuitous emotion are banished, suits the music of Bach perfectly. 

Taking the musical virtues of this music for granted, questions remain concerning the original recording. It’s not that Analogue Production has done anything less than a superb job. In fact, great care has been lavished on the project, as befits the pursuit of the ultimate version of such a musical monument. (The project was supervised by Tom Fine, son of Wilma Cozart Fine and Robert Fine, two of Starker’s Mercury “triumvirate.”) The project on its own terms is a total success and a tribute not only to the original recording but also to the commitment of Analog Productions. The discs are flawless and the cutting from the original master tapes is superb. This seems to me as close to the sound of the master tapes themselves as is likely ever to happen on vinyl. The set may seem expensive at $180, but it is six records, so the price per disc is not really out of line with other premium vinyl reissues. 

Be aware, however, that the original recording has certain issues. One is that Starker’s cello is somewhat sharp in pitch. Starker sometimes tuned slightly sharp, 442Hz for A instead of the standard, which is A440. But various previous versions, including, oddly enough, the CD reissue, so carefully done by Wilma Cozart herself in 1990, is considerably sharper than plausible, often more like A449 than A442 or A440. (Mercury recordings have tended to run sharp, even the ones on vinyl or CD that involve the piano, where tuning the instrument up a long way is unlikely to have happened.) The present reissue of the Mercury set is a little sharp, but fortunately it’s closer to a plausible pitch than the original records or the CD. (It’s curious that Mercury, so determinedly intent upon true fidelity in all other respects, was not more attentive to the pitch question.)

A second point concerns the tonal character of the original recording. Mercury did the recording with its usual three-mic technique, with the center microphone close to the cello and the outboard two functioning mainly as ambience. A recording of this sort is capable of great coherence and presence, and that is the case here. But the tone of the instrument is filtered in effect through the microphone response, which in the case of Mercury was not entirely flat, or so one gathers. In fact, the recordings sound more natural here if one dials in via EQ the inverse of the (public information) response of the microphone used. As it is, the cello has a certain reedy character not found in other recordings by Starker of the cello suites and is not quite the sound of Starker’s playing live, as I recall it. 

I note that Starker switched in the mid-1960s from playing the “Lord Aylesford” Stradivarius cello to a Goffriller cello, which perhaps had a more mellow tone. And almost all of my memories of Starker’s sound are with the Goffriller. The sound of the Sefel and RCA recordings is to my ears a bit closer to those memories, albeit of a different cello. But inverting the microphone curve seems worthwhile to me if you want to hear what Starker really sounded like.  

For those interested in Starker’s Mercury Bach Suites on vinyl, this set is a superb realization of this monument of cello performance. But I’d also suggest adding to your collection the 1995 version on RCA, where Starker, by his own description—and it is true to my ears too for whatever that’s worth—adopted a new view of the Bach Suites, a version which feels more overtly expressive and deeply felt.  That final recording also sounds wonderfully natural and tonally truthful.


By Robert E. Greene

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