Janos Starker, celebrated cellist, dies at 88

Janos Starker, a Hungarian-born master of the cello who emerged from the devastation of World War II to become known as one of the most rivetingly powerful instrumentalists of his generation, died April 28 at a hospice in Bloomington, Ind. He was 88.

Indiana University, where Mr. Starker taught for more than five decades, announced his death but did not disclose the cause.

For decades, Mr. Starker was one of the most sought-after cellists in the world. He was venerated as a soloist and particularly as an interpreter of Bach — he received a Grammy for a 1997 recording of the composer’s solo cello suites — and was equally revered as a chamber musician and teacher.

Baldheaded, with a penetrating gaze from beneath his expressive eyebrows, Mr. Starker drew critical acclaim for the caged emotion that he projected from the stage. Unlike rival musicians who larded their performances with theatrics, he held himself stoically still, as if to demonstrate that the world already contained enough drama.

The son of a Jewish tailor, Mr. Starker was a child prodigy and began his musical training in Budapest during the interlude between the two world wars. During the second, Mr. Starker survived internment in a Nazi work camp, where he said he practiced the cello in his head. His brothers, both of whom played the violin, perished during the war.


Cellist Janos Starker poses for a portrait at the Kennedy Center on June 4, 1984. (Lucian Perkins/The Washington Post)

Mr. Starker established his international reputation in the late 1940s, when he received the Grand Prix du Disque, a prestigious French award, for his recording of a sonata by the contemporary Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly. Kodaly remained a staple of Mr. Starker’s centuries-spanning repertoire. He recorded more than 165 works, including compositions by Bartok, Brahms, Debussy, Strauss and Rachmaninoff.

But he was best known for his command of Bach and especially the baroque composer’s six suites for solo cello, which former Washington Post music critic Lon Tuck described as “the Everest of the cello repertory.” Mr. Starker recorded the suites numerous times, first during a series of nocturnal sessions in the early 1950s, when, by day, he was a first cellist with the Metropolitan Opera’s orchestra in New York City.

“We’d start recording around midnight and continue until 4 a.m.,” he told the American Record Guide. “Then I’d get home for about three hours’ sleep and be at the Met for a 10 a.m. rehearsal. It went on for about a week. I’m still very proud of that set.”

Reviewing a live performance of the Bach suites decades later, New York Times music critic James R. Oestreich wrote that Mr. Starker “seemed to be communing with the composer rather than performing in public.”

At the peak of his career, Mr. Starker performed in as many as 100 concerts a year and drew comparisons to celebrated cellist-conductor Mstislav Rostropovich. “Their contrasting styles are almost musical mirror images of the men’s personalities,” Tuck noted. “Rostropovich — open, ebullient, restless and romantic. Starker — aloof, sober, controlled and classical.”

With ironic detachment, Mr. Starker once summarized the assessment of critics who were unfavorable to his style: They found him to be a “cold bastard onstage,” he was quoted as saying. He stood firm in his opinion — and held firm on stage. He was “not an actor,” he liked to say.

Observers delighted in noting Mr. Starker’s predilection for cigarettes (he reportedly smoked as many as 60 a day), his self-professed weakness for liquor and his healthy supply of self-confidence. “Slava is more popular,” Mr. Starker once told the Forward, referring to Rostropovich by his nickname, “but I’m the greater cellist.”

But Mr. Starker also possessed an endearing sense of humility. It was on display every time he gave a lesson and declined to call it a “master class,” preferring the simpler term “seminar.”

Janos Starker was born July 5, 1924, in Budapest. He gave his first recitals at age 6, according to Indiana University, and made his professional debut as a teenager. Before his internment during World War II, he studied at his city’s Franz Liszt Academy of Music.

After the Holocaust, he was “unafraid of anyone because he concluded that nothing worse could possibly happen to him,” biographer Joyce Geeting wrote in “Janos Starker: ‘King of Cellists’ ” (2008).

He immigrated to the United States in 1948 and became a U.S. citizen several years later. He played with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and, under conductor Fritz Reiner, the Metropolitan Opera orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra before joining Indiana University in 1958 and beginning his solo performing career in earnest. He continued teaching until shortly before his death.

His memoir, “The World of Music According to Starker,” was published in 2004.

Mr. Starker’s first marriage, to Eva Uranyi, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 52 years, the former Rae Busch, of Bloomington; a daughter from his first marriage, Gabriella Starker-Saxe of Toronto; a stepdaughter from his second marriage, whom he adopted, violinist Gwen Preucil of Cleveland; and three grandchildren.

In the world of classical music, artists pursue a command of Bach, such as the one possessed by Mr. Starker at the height of his ability, as if it were a sort of holy grail.

“Except for a man’s limited time and capacity, one hopes it never ends,” Mr. Starker told The Post. “Bach’s creations will remain as long as human aspirations center on art and music.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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