Les Introuvables de János Starker
A few seconds' worth of sampling is all that is needed to establish the tonal identity of Janos Starker, a supremely accomplished player whose tough, dry, vibrant sound was fuller in youth than in older age but whose every stroke of the bow suggests profound musicality. Even those of Fritz Reiner's Chicago Symphony recordings where Starker leads the orchestra's cello section (Le bourgeois gentilhomme, 12/92, being a personal favourite) reveal that unmistakable personality, at once forthright and ardently expressive. Starker's earliest recordings included powerful first attempts at major repertoire featured in this splendid EMI retrospective. I can remember thrilling to versions of the First, Third, Fourth and Sixth Bach Cello Suites, originally made for Period Records and issued here (for a second time) on low-price Saga LPs (10/63), where Starker's muscular delivery and eloquent phrase-shaping were captured in fiercely close-set sound. I can also remember how EMI 'completed' one set by coupling Starker's Columbia recordings of the Second and Fifth Suites (the ones omitted by Saga/Period) on a single LP.
Returning to the Columbia set now confirms a remarkable consistency in approach (carried through, at least in part, to two subsequent recordings), 'classical-romantic' rather than 'authentic baroque', with propulsive Preludes, buoyant Bourrees, Gavottes and Gigues, and deeply introspective accounts of the slower movements. Again, the recorded balance is fairly close, although this particular transfer presents the First and Fifth Suites as marginally less well recorded than the other four (the First sounds rather dull and the Fifth suffers minor patches of distortion). The Kodaly Sonata, a regular Starker showpiece, again claims a 1950 predecessor (latterly reissued on a short-lived Philips disc) and was followed by a noteworthy successor (Delos, 1/89). However, it would be difficult to upstage the well-employed virtuosity of this 1957 performance, especially in the raging final Allegro molto vivace, a dazzling dance sequence and the nearest Kodaly ever came to sounding like Bartok.
Of the concerto sessions, Starker's sensitive readings of the Saint-Saens and Dvorak works have given me countless hours of pleasure even though both were followed by equally distinguished Mercury recordings (4/92 and 3/91, respectively). The Dvorak, in particular, features a most touching account of the slow movement, but EMI slip up in their tracking of the individual movements of the Saint-Saens Concerto (the Allegretto con moto actually starts during track 7, and not at the beginning of track 8). The Schumann Concerto is more full-bodied but less subtle than Starker's new RCA recording (10/95 – again, there is a fine Mercury alternative, 4/92); Dohnanyi's delightful Konzertstuck receives smiling advocacy, Faure's Elegie weeps inwardly, while both the Milhaud and Prokofiev concertos – the former with its Mahlerian resonances (try the Grave second movement for side-glances towards Das Lied), the latter, a restless precursor of a musically superior
A veritable feast, then – although I could well understand some listeners finding the very dryness, even nasal quality of Starker's sound a little unprepossessing. Still, for me this is a major reissue, certainly in terms of the unaccompanied works, all of which are given extraordinarily animated and well-focused performances. The majority of EMI's transfers are excellent.'