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.
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.”