Tempted to buy something I don’t really need from Amazon.com in order to utilize the free shipping for orders greater than $25, I’ve spent some time browsing some recordings of Bach’s cello suites. A favorite recording over the last 8 or 10 years has been Janos Starker’s Mercury edition, which probably first came out on LP in the 1970’s and was re-released on CD in 1991. Unfortunately this recording is now in my brother’s possession (I suppose it is his) and my scruples don’t allow for copying of his CD.
The Mercury recording is one that I’ve listened to time and again. “Listen to” is such a weak verb, however, for my relationship with this music. Just as Karl Haas was a companion of sorts with his Adventures in Good Music every weeknight at 8:00 during the long evenings studying during my first and second years of medical school, these recordings have accompanied me in life. Replete with detail and grace, rich in personality (which in Starker’s case is of course more than a big mellow tone and lots of rubato…his playing utilizes nasal–and at times even tinny–tones and sparing vibrato), and far more nuanced than most recordings I’ve encountered, the scope and magnitude of these works contrasts sharply with the visual restraint of a lone musician on a bare stage.
It should be no suprise, then, that I read with great interest others’ reviews of the Mercury recordings and the newer RCA recordings Starker made in 1997. I’m having trouble deciding between the two recordings: the younger, more technically perfect and artistically nuanced Starker versus the older, wiser, more reflective Starker.
A few samples of the reviewers’ comments… the negative ones displease me. On the other hand, perhaps the authors of those comments don’t deserve to appreciate Starker the way I do.
- “…there is a pleasing ‘thickness’ to the performances by Ma and Starker…”
- “…[Starker] remarks, ‘Playing Bach is a never-ending quest for beauty, as well as in some sense, the truth…As the years and decades go by, the understanding grows while the technical means weaken.'”
- “A fitting backdrop for any epiphany…”
- “…sound is very dry and often thin .” (Mercury recordings)
- “He often chooses not to vibrate certain notes, seemingly arbitrarily. And he clearly has no concept of the piece as a polyphonic work, trying (and often failing) to make smooth melodic lines when there are none to be found.”
- “Starker’s Mercury set of the suites is, for most cellists, the gold standard.”