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Starker's last will and testament in Bach
on 29 April 2011
Janos Starker was born in 1924 in Budapest, Hungary. Two of his older brothers perished in the Nazi holocaust, and he himself was interned. A child prodigy, he made his debut aged 11, and caused a sensation when he played the Dvorak concerto aged 14, standing in at short notice for an indisposed soloist. After the War, he went to America at the invitation of Antal Dorati, and was first cello in several prominent orchestras there before branching out as a chamber player in 1951 [most memorably in the 1960s, with Joseph Suk and Julius Katchen], and as a soloist and teacher. He became an American citizen, and was widely recognised as one of the greatest cellists of his generation. He recorded virtually all the great works of the cello repertoire, many of them several times. He has always been closely associated with the Kodaly sonata for solo cello, and has made five sets of recordings of the Bach suites, the pinnacle of the cello repertoire, though only three have been widely available. These are the early 1950s set for Period [just suites 1,3,4 & 6], issued on LP in the UK by Nixa and re-issued by Saga; the mid-60s set for Mercury; and this version for RCA. [In addition, there was a late 1950s EMI set [1, 2, 3 & 5 in mono: 4 & 6 in stereo], and a 1984 digital set for Sefal.]
This set, his last, was apparently recorded in 1992, but not released until 1997, originally by RCA. In its present incarnation, it represents astonishing value for money, despite the lack of any notes about the artist or the music. His playing has gained an added nobility and patrician grandeur with the passage of time; and though his earlier recordings - especially the 1963-5 Mercury cycle - may display more fleet-footed energy and excitement, none of them seems to be currently available. In some ways the Mercury cycle may have the edge for its combination of technical brilliance and sheer musicality. Sadly, in its 1992 CD remastering, it was pitched almost a semitone sharp; and though this was corrected for the 2004 Hybrid CD/SACD re-issue, that set is currently unavailable.
No-one who loves Starker's playing of these incredible works should hesitate for a moment to acquire this very special, technically excellent recording, particularly at this bargain price. If and when the Mercury set, properly pitched, becomes available again, that too should be acquired. In the meantime, no-one should feel short-changed by these well-recorded, golden and glorious performances. They represent the crowning achievement of his life and work.