The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Famed cellist Janos Starker, master teacher and master performer, is dead at 88. Listen to how deep and moving, yet also austere, his Bach is.

May 4, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

Over the years I saw cellist Janos Starker (below) perform live several times in concert, both recitals and concertos, and I have a few of his recordings. He died last week at 88 in a nursing home after a long illness.

Starker was quite the legendary character, an original who loved his Scotch and cigarettes. He was also one of the best cellists ever as well as one of the most demanding music teachers ever. He did not suffer fools gladly. His repertoire was enormous and covered everything from Bach and Beethoven to Schumann, Dvorak and Brahms to Elgar, Kodaly and Hindemith, 

janos starker 1

After I heard of his death, I played some of his Grammy-winning recording of J.S. Bach’s six solo cello suites (below). That is the music where I find the quintessential Starker.

How much I liked hearing Starker’s readings of solo Bach! They thoroughly absorbed me and held my attention. His playing of Bach simply would not let me go.

Janos Starker CD cover

I don’t care so much about the historical origins of the music. I like my Bach (below) to have more profundity and lyricism than many early music groups often give him, but I also like more lightness and dance-like qualities than many of the more heavy Romantic interpreters give him.

Starker, who was all business, always took a more austere approach characterized by less vibrato – something that anticipated one of the signatures of the historically informed period performances of Bach.Which is to say: Starker, like me, like his Bach deep.

To me that seems only fitting for someone who survived the Nazi death camps and who saw his two violinist brothers murdered in them.


I like that after World War II, when he came to the U.S. and taught at Indiana University, Starker said he was put on Earth to teach.

janos starker teaching

I also like that once he left Europe, he went from being Schtarker (as in his native Hungary) to the starker Americanized pronunciation Starker.

I especially like his deep, dark Bach. It is deep and dark without being overly resonant to be point of becoming cloying, ponderous and gooey, which is how I sometimes find Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach. Nor was it superficial and court dancy as some early music is. Even in his secular music, there is so much more to Bach than the charm and the notes — and Starker got to it.

Starker’s Bach was somehow serious and even spiritual without being reverential. It was emotional without becoming sentimental.

Can you think of a better measure for making great music?

janos starker BW

Here are some of the best obituaries and histories about Janos Starker the man and the musician I found over the past several days. They have some wonderful stories and details to savor.

Here is an obituary from The New York Times:

And here is a great column of NPR’s wonderful blog “Deceptive Cadence”:

Here is another overview with los of details about his career:,0,6362393.story

Be sure to leave your own impressions, critiques, remembrances and tributes in the COMMENTS section.

And here is Starker playing the first movement from the Suite No.1 for solo cello by J.S. Bach in a YouTube video, showing once again how Starker spoke best for himself through his playing:

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