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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.


As it happened, Starker joined the Indiana University faculty exactly at the moment when my sister Harriet entered Indiana as freshman music major, cello her instrument. And she became his student. While eventually she decided not to pursue a career as a professional cellist, she studied with Starker until her graduation from IU, and she and Starker remained friends thereafter, until her death in 2004. And through this association, I became acquainted with Starker myself, though I tended to see him only when his concert tours brought him to California.

Starker was not only a supreme musician but also a vivid personality off-stage, with a great enthusiasm for life and a wry sense of humor based on being willing to say whatever he had a mind to say, regardless. I hope I may be forgiven if I add a few Starker stories of my own to the numerous tales that part of his enduring legend.

Some of these stories are humorous. But let me first illustrate what I was willing to do to hear a Starker performance. Back several decades, I was visiting Berkeley and had been invited out to dinner with my wife by my former dissertation advisor and his wife. We were sitting preparing to order dinner in an elegant restaurant when our host mentioned that Starker was performing in Berkeley that evening. I had not known of this but I was immediately determined to go if I could. Manners or no manners, upon discovering that there was just time to get to the concert, I excused myself and simply left. (I did have the good graces to invite and my wife and our hosts to come with me, but they declined.) As it happened, I got a seat in the front row center—the concert was sold out but there had been a cancellation. The concert was an unforgettable experience, even though our friends teased me a good bit later on.

My sister also made every effort to hear Starker’s performances when he came to her part of the country. On one occasion, it had been a couple of years since they had seen each other, and in the meantime Harriet, who was in her early thirties, had begun to go prematurely gray. After the concert, she went backstage to visit with Starker. He embraced her and then held her at arm’s length, looked carefully, and said “Harriet, you are getting gray. I must be getting old.” Thus the view from Olympus!

On another occasion, the concert was some considerable distance from where Harriet lived, but Harriet decided to make the trip. She arrived with little time to spare and saw Starker only at the after-concert reception. As she walked in, he was surrounded by congratulators and the sponsors of the event, in usual reception fashion. When he saw Harriet, he said with no attempt to keep his voice down “Harriet, thank God, you’re here, and I’ll have someone to talk to.”

Back while Harriet was still Starker’s student, she asked him if she could study the Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata with him. She had become attached to the piece through playing it with my father, who liked the big piano parts of the Romantic sonatas. Starker was aware of it but had apparently not paid much attention to it—at that time it was not often performed. But he too fell for it (and later made a recording of it that is one of his most beautiful, to my mind). And he decided to play it soon after at a gathering of his students. One of the most bumptious of them, after the great sonata, played exquisitely, was over, had the nerve to say: “Professor Starker, how can you want to play such sentimental music?” Starker gave him a long, no doubt devastating look in silence, and then turned to Harriet with a smile and said, “Not everyone does, but you and I understand the nature of passion.” As one might suppose, gossip buzzed thereafter, with no justification of course, but who could resist speculation after that remark?

I never encountered his party stunt of imitating the playing of other cellists, though I heard stories! But he could laugh at himself as well as makes fun of others. In his book of caricatures of well-known musicians The Roll Call of the Blessed Ones, he depicts himself holding a cello and encased in a block of ice. And when I spoke to him after a concert of how moved I had been by his impassioned performance of the ultra-Romantic Dohnanyi Konzertstuck, he gave me his wry smile and said, “That ought to show those people who call me the ice cold bastard of the cello.”

In 1989, I was attending a mathematics conference at the University of California, Santa Cruz, during a time when Starker was performing at the Santa Cruz Summer Music Festival. After the first concert I went back to speak to Starker. And he asked me if I would like to come to the dress rehearsal for his next appearance, a sonata recital with his long-time sonata partner Shigeo Neriki. There were lectures that I was supposed to go to at the time of the rehearsal but first things first. Of course I accepted with alacrity. I was supposing that there would be a number of people at the dress rehearsal. But when I got there, there was no one but Starker, Neriki, and myself. To say that the resulting experience was overwhelming would be an understatement. Hearing them play the great Beethoven Sonata No. 3 as the only audience, I felt like Ludwig II of Bavaria hearing Wagner’s operas alone. At the end, I went up and expressed my happiness and gratitude at having been there. Starker said, “Yes, today was fun. Tomorrow [the concert] is work. But this was fun.”

Sidebar: Especially Recommended Recordings: A Personal Selection
Out of so many wonderful things, a short list can hardly be made except on a personal basis. Here are my favorites:

– Bach: Suites for Solo Cello [RCA, Mercury earlier]
– Bloch: Schelomo. Mehta and Israel Philharmonic (LP original, still available on CD in Concertos in Contrast [Decca/London])
– Dohnanyi: Konzertstuck. Schwartz, Seattle. [Delos, EMI earlier]
– Dvorák: Concerto. Slatkin, St. Louis [RCA, Mercury earlier]
– Kodaly: Solo Sonata for Cello, Opus 8. [Delos, EMI earlier]
– Rachmaninoff: Sonata for Cello and Piano. S. Neriki, piano [RCA]

By Robert E. Greene

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