János Starker (1924-2013)

Hungarian cello great dies aged 88

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János Starker, one of the foremost cellists of his generation, has died at the age of 88.

Over his very long, and exceptionally eventful, life and career, the Hungarian won legions of devoted fans with his refined, focused sound, intense but unshowy stage presence, and mastery of composers ranging from JS Bach to his own 20th-century contemporaries.

Born in Budapest, Starker played the cello from an early age – he made his first public performance at seven, started teaching pupils by 12, and made his professional debut in Dvořák’s Cello Concerto at 14.

World War II and its aftermath brought sudden and grim twists in Starker’s nascent career. As a Jew, he was sent to an internment camp for three months – unlike his brothers, however, he at least escaped being murdered by the Nazis. And then, no sooner had he taken up the position of principal cellist with the Budapest Philharmonic immediately after the War, Starker set his mind on leaving his home country, now occupied by Soviet forces.

The means to make the move abroad came thanks to one of the many discs that Starker would make over the following 50 years. Starker’s recording of Kodály’s Cello Sonata in 1948 not only won him but the Grand Prix du Disque but was regarded by the composer himself as ‘the Bible performance’ – in later years, Starker would joke how its phenomenal success enabled him to buy his indoor swimming pool.

Emigrating to the US in 1948, Starker took up roles with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the Met Opera in New York and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for ten years before deciding, in 1958, it was time to resume his solo career.

That solo career saw him travel widely, playing with world’s top orchestras and making over 150 recordings. A number of these have gone on to be considered classics, not least his Dvořák Cello Concerto [Spotify] with the London Symphony Orchestra under Antal Dorati from 1990 – Kodály aside, the Dvořák Concerto was the work with which, above all, Starker’s name became associated.

Retiring from the stage in 2001, went on to become a highly respected teacher, his trenchant but firmly expressed views leaving no room for doubt in pupils’ minds. His autobiography, the aptly titled The World of Music According to Starker, was published in 2004.