Janos Starker

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JANOS STARKER plays Kodály, Beethoven and Bartók

1-2. KODÁLY: Cello Sonata, Op.4 [18:21]
3-5. BEETHOVEN: Cello Sonata No.2 in G minor, Op.5, No.2 [22:09]

Recorded · 16 January 1959 · Frankfurt · Raum 3/B · Hessischer Rundfunk · Radio Studio Recording
János Starker · cello
Günther Ludwig · piano

6-8. BEETHOVEN: Cello Sonata No.3 in A Major, Op. 69 [24:43]
9-10. BARTÓK: Rhapsody for cello & piano No.1, Sz.88 [10:38]

Recorded · 10 April 1962 · Frankfurt · Raum 3/C · Hessischer Rundfunk · Radio Studio Recording
János Starker · cello
György Sebök · piano

Additional Information

Article number: MC 3009
Release date: 02 May 2014
UPC barcode: 0791154050514
Total time: 75:33

Producer and Audio Restoration: Lynn Ludwig
Booklet Notes: Michael Waiblinger
Design: Alessia Issara
Photographs: Deutsche Nationalbibliothek
With special thanks to Ulrich Karla
From the Original Masters · © 2014 Meloclassic

János Starker was born in Budapest on July 5, 1924, the son of a Polish-Jewish tailor named Sándor and his Ukrainian wife Margit. His mother dreamed of having musical sons; János’s elder brothers (Tibor and Ede) were encouraged to be violinists, and at six Starker was given a cello. “Why the cello? Well, we had no piano and I was too young for the clarinet,” he recalled. After lessons with Fritz Teller failed, his parents approached Adolf Schiffer (1873–1950), a pupil of David Popper and his successor at the Franz Liszt Academy, while there played with violinist Geza de Kresz, and some other promising students in string quartets. In 1931 Starker heard Pablo Casals and was introduced to him by Schiffer, “Casals took me in his arms and kissed me and I didn’t wash my face for a week” he recalled. In 1934, “when I was already in the preparatory class of the Academy, I attended a recital in which Béla Bartók played with Emanuel Feuermann. It was a revelation. I felt he was the greatest cellist.” In 1938 Starker gave his first performance with orchestra of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto under Ernst von Dohnányi; and in 1939 he revived Kodaly’s Solo Cello Sonata, unheard for years. After graduation, he held the chair of principal cellist of the Budapest Opera and Philharmonic Orchestra.

But Hungarian antisemitism became rampant in the World War II, and the Starkers were Jews. When the Germans invaded in 1944, Starker and his parents were dispatched to an internment camp on an island in the Danube outside Budapest. All three survived the war, though his two older brothers, Tibor and Ede, disappeared and were murdered in Nazi prison camps. Starker himself spent three months in a labour camp and was almost killed by American bombing. Somehow he, his wife, Eva Uranyi, whom he married in 1944, and their parents survived.


In 1946, disliking the political atmosphere of his Soviet-occupied country, he left Budapest and went to Vienna, where he played Kodaly’s Solo Cello Sonata at a chamber music concert in Vienna on 21 March 1946, then remained there to prepare for the Geneva Cello Competition, held in October 1946. He lost to his student, Eva Janzer. Apart from a few months in a string quartet on the French Riviera, Starker had spent 1946 and 1948 in Paris, thinking about what he wanted to do. In 1947, he made 78rpm discs of the Kodaly solo Sonata, which won the Grand Prix du Disque. When the composer was in Paris the following spring, Starker was in demand at every gathering. Even more crucial was meeting the conductor Antal Dorati, who brought him to the US as principal cellist of the Dallas Symphony in 1948.

Starker determined to make his career from an American base. In 1949, when he moved from Dallas to be the first cello of the New York Metropolitan Opera under Fritz Reiner. He turned down Leonard Rose’s invitation to audition for the New York Philharmonic’s principal cellist position when he left the orchestra. Starker felt that they should know who he was and how he played, “If Mitropoulos wanted to hear me play, he should have called me himself, instead of making me play for some committee.” Leaving the Met in 1952, Starker became principal cellist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra when Fritz Reiner became the music director. Starker appeared as soloist several times under Fritz Reiner:
• November 19 and 20, 1953 – DVOŘÁK Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op. 104
• November 24, 1953 – SCHUBERT/Cassadó Cello Concerto in A Minor
• January 5 and 6, 1956 – SCHUMANN Cello Concerto in A Minor, Op. 129
• February 28, March 1, & 12, 1957 – BRAHMS Double Concerto in A Minor, Op. 102 (John Weicher, vln)
• March 14 and 15, 1957 – SAINT-SAËNS Cello Concerto in A Minor, Op. 33
• December 5 and 6, 1957 – HINDEMITH Cello Concerto

He became a full-time concert soloist in 1958; that same year, he started teaching at Indiana University. Starker has never regretted his time in Chicago. “Playing with Reiner,” he once said, “you learn something new at every rehearsal.”

He still wears as a souvenir of Chicago days a tiepin given to him by the members of his section to commemorate an event of the last season. Reiner, who had been as close to Starker as he ever permits himself to be with an employee, had paid public tribute to his retiring first cellist shortly before a performance of the Verdi Requiem. At the final rehearsal, however, Starker forgot to count during a passage for unaccompanied sopranos, and came in, loudly, a bar too soon. Reiner gave him an infuriated look and threw his baton violently to the ground, where it snapped. Some time passed before the two men made it up, and in the interim the section bought Starker a gold tiepin in the shape of a broken baton.

As part of his campaign for solo status, Starker, while still at the Met, began making records, first for Period, a little company owned by another Hungarian. Later he moved his allegiance to Angel, where he worked for Walter Legge, who is English but easily recognizable to a Hungarian as a character out of a Molnar play. His first contact with any American lady in any business, however, had been with Wilma Cozart of Mercury, to whom Dorati had introduced him as he arrived in Dallas. Starker was one of the most recorded cellists in the world, he made over 160 recordings of virtually the entire cello literature.

After criticizing conductor Eugene Ormandy during a 1950 recording session of “Die Fledermaus” for not knowing the score, Starker had to wait until 1985, the year of Ormandy’s death, before he was invited as a soloist with that maestro’s Philadelphia Orchestra. In 1956 and 1957 Starker gave several recitals in major cities of Europe with his friend and compatriot Livia Rév including those in Vienna, Paris and London with a sold-out Wigmore Hall recital. At the Edinburgh festival he played all six Bach solo Suites in two concerts and the Elgar Cello Concerto at the opening of the Edinburgh Festival with the Hallé Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli. On the other hand, it did take 16 years for him to be heard at New York’s Carnegie Hall on October 7, 1964. Over the years he took part in several quartets and trios, but his most effective chamber music liaison was with his old friend György Sebők, a pianist with whom he toured and recorded for more than a decade.

Starker was declaring himself an idealistic purist, “To be able to approach music honestly, and to re-create it that way, without theatricality, without false emotion, without tricky effects, without lush tone for its own sake. Heifetz has always been my guiding string instrumentalist, not necessarily because of his musicianship, but because his sound was so distinctive. Of course, this isn’t something that one should set out to do, where one consciously chooses certain idiosyncrasies just to stand out, otherwise the music becomes secondary.”

Starker didn’t like the term master classes, “I don’t call them master classes, which is a misnomer. I call them seminars. My point is not to help a young person to play a piece so much better in half an hour but to assess the problems and work with them, to discuss the problems which are the same for everybody but at different stages of development. Every approach has advantages and disadvantages.” His strategy was to observe a cellist’s sitting position and to gauge how the right and left arm used in music making process. “For me, it is as much a necessity to perform as it is to eat, drink and make love,” he declared once, “But concerts are not satisfying enough if I don’t also teach. Luckily, I have the temperament and stamina for both.”

He adored Scotch and by his own account consumed it with abandon. For much of his life he smoked 60 cigarettes a day, though in old age he reduced the number to 25. He once walked out of a scheduled performance of the Elgar Concerto with the South Carolina Philharmonic because he was barred from smoking his accustomed preconcert cigarette backstage. Since 2005, Starker had limited his activities to teaching and occasional performances.

Starker died in Bloomington, Indiana on April 28, 2013.

Source: Starker interviewed by Karine Le Bail in 1988, French radio program “Les greniers de la mémoire”.

© Michael Waiblinger 2014

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