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:


  1. […] Classical music: Famed cellist Janos Starker, master teacher and master performer, is dead at 88. Li… ( […]

    Pingback by McfaddenMcfadden | Carol McFadden — June 13, 2013 @ 10:20 am

  2. I bought the Starker Bach suites in a boxed set of LPs in 1972. I gave copies to several friends as presents after I heard them. I used to say I played them when I wanted to feel unaccompanied.

    Comment by Ron McCrea — May 5, 2013 @ 12:07 pm

  3. Have just been listening to bits of the 1997-issued recording of the Six Cello Suites. I love Starker’s robust tone.It reminds me of well-aged brandy. I feel this is how J.S. Bach might have wanted it played.

    Comment by Ann Boyer — May 4, 2013 @ 10:05 pm

    • Hi Ann,
      That is the same set I listened to after his death.
      And I agree completely about the robust tone and strong attacks.
      It cannot be bettered.

      Comment by welltemperedear — May 5, 2013 @ 11:21 am

  4. A few years ago I read the book, “Nobody Knows the Truffles I’ve Seen,” by George Lang. Mr. Lang was a famous restauranteur who was originally from Hungary, had survived the Holocaust and lost his parents. He was also a good friend of Janos Starker and played violin with him. In his book he says that Janos was truly talented. Here is a quote from the book…

    “To say that Janos Starker is a cellist is like describing a great sculptor as a stone cutter. The Good Lord takes a few pounds of minerals, amino acids and other unexciting ingredients, and on rare occasion turns them into human beings of exceptional qualities. The process of the creation of a great performer is even more mysterious, and it would be pointless for me to try to analyze what makes Starker what he is.”

    Comment by Genie Ogden — May 4, 2013 @ 3:01 am

  5. Thank you . With respect from violinist-musician to Real Cello-Musician – Schtarker .  Olga Pomolova


    Comment by Olga Pomolova — May 4, 2013 @ 12:25 am

  6. Thank you for this, Jake. For me, he set an example for what a musician and teacher should be. And I fell in love with the cello through his concerts and recordings. In the 60’s I first encountered his Bach, and my musical world changed from that point. Your comments about that ring true for me. Here is a great excerpt and joke from the Indiana announcement of his passing: “We often come up with a problem that the students come and they play Beethoven sonatas, Schumann concertos and this and that they play very well, musical this and that but something lacks,” he says. “And what’s lacking is partly because of the timing. They are too young yet. They have no real understanding of the composer’s language.”

    Starker was known for being tough on his students. Former IU basketball coach Bobby Knight, himself known for the demands he placed on his players, asked Starker to come speak to his team.

    Afterward one of the players came up to Starker and asked if he could tell Starker a joke.

    “Mr Starker there was a car accident and three cellists died and they all tried to get to Heaven,” the student said. He then goes on to explain the joke. St. Peter asks the first two with whom they studied. They answer they studied with Mstislav Rostropovich and Leonard Rosen. St. Peter tells both of them they have to go to Hell.

    The third one tells St. Peter he studied with Starker. Then comes the punch line.

    “St. Peter says ‘You may come in. You already went through Hell.’”

    Starker trained some of the most accomplished cellists. Among them is Emilio Colon and Maria Kliegel. At Starker’s 75th birthday celebration in 1999 many of them performed.

    Starker believed music was the highest form of expression and as a musician it was something he said he could not live without.

    “It is part of our lives in a way that we cannot wake up in the morning and go through life without music and without having this essential aspect of it, that music means just as much as eating and drinking or living then that person should not be involved in music,” he says.

    Comment by Henry Peters — May 4, 2013 @ 12:22 am

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