In the years when I was discovering classical music, one of the first recordings of the Bach cello suites I heard was Janos Starker’s for Mercury Records.
Starker was famed for his Bach; in fact he recorded the suites several times. His reserved, focused style suited Bach.
Still, it wouldn’t be right to call Starker a "Bach cellist." He was equally at home in Romantic and contemporary literature, warmly expressive when the music called for it – but he was always tasteful, never indulging in excess. Starker played with complete respect for the composer’s notes and a clean, spare vibrato. He spurned – even ridiculed – the extravagant body language of many a modern cellist as “self-aggrandizement.”
Janos Starker was born in Budapest on 8 July 1924. His talent emerged early; at age seven he met Pablo Casals and shortly thereafter found himself studying at the Franz Liszt Academy.
Starker’s family was Jewish. During the war they were sent to a prison camp near Budapest. He and his parents survived, but 2 brothers were never accounted for. He believed they were shot by Nazi guards.
In 1948 conductor Antal Dorati, who had emigrated from Hungary to the US seven years earlier, encouraged Starker to follow his example. Indiana University wrote to US immigration officials, indicating that they were willing to hire him.
Starker promptly took a gig playing first chair for Dorati’s Dallas Symphony. From there he moved on to the Met Orchestra under Fritz Reiner. When Riener went to Chicago, so did Starker. They later had an infamous tiff, Reiner throwing his baton at Starker when he missed a cue.
Despite their letter, Starker didn’t actually join Indiana University’s faculty until 1958. But working with students had always been important to Starker. "I was born to be a teacher," he said in a 2011 interview. In fact, Starker took on his first student when he was 8 years old (the student was 6).
Though he could be hair-raising in the studio*, passing on his prodigious technique and spot-on intonation to young cellists was just part of what he did. "I cannot perform without teaching," he said, "and I cannot teach without performing." The act of explaining his technique to students gave Starker deeper insight into it.
Starker remained on the Indiana faculty until shortly before his death, attracting multiple generations of young cellists to Bloomington.
Janos Starker was an inveterate smoker – 3 packs a day for much of his life. A cigarette was his last companion before he strode on stage, and the first he greeted after the concert. Starker once bailed on a performance of the Elgar concerto when the concert hall’s management refused to let him smoke backstage.
In fact, he preferred to take his smokes on stage with him when possible. Starker liked to give shirtsleeve recitals, dividing his stage time between playing and opinionated musical commentary (often about other musicians), punctuated by drags on his ever-present cigarette and sips from a glass of scotch.
Janos Starker died Sunday at a hospice in Bloomington. He is survived by his second wife, Rae; a daughter from his first marriage, Gabriella Starker-Saxe; daughter Gwen Starker Preucil (wife of the Cleveland Orchestra’s concertmaster); and 3 grandchildren – Cleveland Orchestra violinist Alexandra Preucil, Nicole Preucil, and J. P. Saxe.
*A joke circulated for years among cellists – reportedly told by Starker himself on occasion – goes like this: Three cellists die and ascend to the pearly gates, where they are greeted by St Peter. The first cellist requests entry into Heaven. "With whom did you study?" St Peter asks. "Leonard Rose," he responds. "Sorry," says St Peter. "I’m afraid you’ll have to go to Hell." The second cellist now steps forward. St Peter again asks the question. "Mstislav Rostropovich," comes the reply. "You too," says St Peter. " To Hell with you." By now the last cellist is really rattled. At St Peter’s inquiry he cringes and whispers, "Janos Starker?" St Peter smiles broadly. "Come on in, and welcome to Heaven! You’ve already been through Hell!"