János Starker, the Hungarian-born Jewish-American cellist has died; he was 88. Starker started playing the cello aged only five and gave his first public performances a year later. He studied at the Franz Liszt Music Academy in Budapest where his cello teacher was Adolf Schiffer; he was also greatly influenced by the composer and faculty member Leo Weiner. He made his professional debut aged 14 when he stepped in, on three hours' notice, and played the Dvořák Cello Concerto.
He remained in Budapest during the war and narrowly avoided the fate of his older brothers who were murdered by the Nazis; János spent three months in a Nazi internment camp.
After the war, Starker was appointed principal cello of the Budapest Opera and Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra. After losing the 1946 Geneva Cello Competition to his student Eva Janzer, Starker took a year away from playing to work on his technique in Paris. At the end of this period he recorded the Kodály Solo Cello Sonata, a phenomenally difficult work he would go on to record three more times and which he would make his own.
After leaving Soviet-occupied Hungary in 1948, Starker joined the Dallas Symphony and then the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra where he came to the attention of his fellow Hungarian, the conductor Fritz Reiner. In 1952 Reiner lured Starker to become principal cello of the Chicago Symphony when he was appointed music director. In 1958 Starker resumed a solo career which he combined with teaching at the University of Indiana. The list of his cello students reads like a Who's Who of the North American cello world. He stopped playing professionally in 2001 and concentrated on teaching.
Starker's playing style was characterised by a superb technique, a tighly focused tone and an intensity of sound. His discography – for Delos, DG, EMI, London, Mercury, Philips and Seraphim among others – was extensive and embraced five different recordings of the Bach solo cello suites, chamber music and the major cello concertos.