Bach Starker Suites For Unaccompanied Cello Complete Is The Perfect Self-Quarantining Companion

What better time than during a period of self-isolation and social distancing could there be to explore Bach’s “Suites For Unaccompanied Cello”? Arguably, there’s no finer recorded performances than the ones Janos Starker performed for Mercury Records April 15 and 17, 1963, September 7-8, 1965 and December 21-22, 1965 (though some may prefer other performances by Casals, Rostropovich, Yo-Yo-Ma, etc.). I'm not here to argue with you. The finest version of these historic recordings, is without a doubt, this latest one from Analogue Productions and the sound is unassailable.

When Janos Starker passed away in Bloomington, Indiana, April 28th, 2013 at age 88, he left behind a rich legacy of live and recorded performances as well as a lifelong dedication to teaching. He wasn’t in Bloomington visiting John Mellencamp. Starker made Bloomington his home to teach at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, beginning in 1958 and continuing until shortly before his death.

He told the Chicago Tribune in 1993 “I personally cannot perform without teaching, and I cannot teach without performing. When you have to explain what you are doing, you discover what you are really doing.”

Jewish-born in Hungary in 1924, Starker gave his first cello recital at age 11. At 14 he performed the Dvorak concerto with a symphony orchestra with but a few hours’ notice. He later became the principal cellist of both the Budapest Opera and the the Budapest Philharmonic. Towards the end of WW II the Nazis interred him and his parents in a camp. All survived but his two brothers disappeared.

Perhaps that history in part explains Starker’s approach to both his playing and how he lived his life (while the Hungarian pronunciation of his name was “Shtarker”, upon moving to America he begin pronouncing it as written).

Starker was Kurt Cobain-like: outspoken, unsentimental, and (relatively) hard-living. His playing was uneffusive and his stage mannerisms undramatic. In an interview he once said, “I’m not an actor, I don’t want to be one of those musicians who appears to be making love to himself onstage.” He avoided excessive vibrato and other “schmaltz-inducing” musical mannerisms, which some critics confused with a lack of passion.

His orderly, “spit’n’shine” tone and almost mathematical phrasing were perfectly suited for these Bach suites and for an audience of rock-attuned listeners interested in exploring new musical vistas, though his more romantic side shone through on his interpretation of the Dvorak Cello concerto.

Starker was also an unapologetic chain smoker (up to 60 a day), scotch consumer and highly opinionated individual who wouldn’t hold back, regardless of who might be offended. Excess vibrato, he averred “was like a woman smearing her whole face with lipstick.” Of the effusive, highly regarded performer Jacqueline du Pre, who was felled by multiple sclerosis, Starker said “She was an incredibly gifted cellist and a beautiful artist, but I believe she accelerated her own destruction because she expended so much energy in her performances.” Starker once walked out of a performance when he was not permitted his pre-concert backstage cigarette.

Perhaps in part because after the war he worked for a time as an electrician, Starker was keenly aware of recorded sound quality and of the differing responsibilities of an artist performing live in concert and in the recording studio. He held in high regard Mercury Living Presence producer Wilma Cozart Fine and engineer Robert Fine, calling Robert Fine in annotation accompanying Speakers Corner’s 2004 box set reissue of this recording “…the innovator genius with the microphones.” In that fascinating annotation he also salutes this recording’s producer Harold Lawrence as “the man with the infallible ear and taste.”

I give you all of this fascinating background because I feel if you are going to sit down with Mr. Starker and his cello and spend an evening listening to these records, here spread out at 45rpm over 12 sides, you should, if you’re unfamiliar, have at least some of his fascinating background, which I cannot leave without adding two anecdotes. Starker was so insistent on his students’ commitment to their art that it impressed Indiana’s crazed, chair throwing basketball coach Bobby Knight who invited Starker to address the team. Finally, I don’t know if it was taped but if so, I’d love to see it, in an effort to counter his reputation for on-stage aloofness, producer/impresario Joseph Papp created a special touring show for Starker called “An Evening With Janos Starker” in which in between playing his cello, he told classical music “war stories” (Starker famously butted heads with many famous conductors, who he called “the most overrated people in music”), while sipping scotch and smoking cigarettes.

Four Versions

Original pressings of this justly iconic recording were at one point super-costly and perhaps still are for people wanting the original, which was mastered by the legendary George Piros directly from the original 3 track master tapes. Wilma Cozart Fine and Robert Fine’s son Tom who supervised the remastering for this set, visited last year (or maybe two years ago?) with the original set and rejected test pressings from this set.

The test pressings and indeed, the entire first mastering, had to be rejected due to noisy Apollo lacquers, which necessitated a complete and costly re-do. Nonetheless, the comparison between the original set and this reissue demonstrated that better mastering, pressing and mixing produced a far superior sounding final product. Not even close.

Producing this set required Mr. Fine to go through all of the original master tapes and clean and repair many old splices, among other prep work. The 3 track tapes were hand-carried to Ryan K. Smiths’ Sterling Sound, Nashville mastering suite, where the two went about the process of live mixing to 2 channels the 3 track tape played back on an Ampex ATR100, and without a preview head, manually controlling the lathe’s groove pitch, rather than relying on the VMS-80’s computer driven system. As with the original, no equalization or dynamic compression were applied but unlike the original, here the set was cut at 45rpm and spread over six 200g LPs and pressed at Quality Record Pressing. Even the clean original Fine brought over was noisy compared to QRP’s absolutely silent backgrounds (discounting the defective lacquer “whoosh”, corrected on the second go-round).

Two other reissues are out there with many readers who are fans of this set asking if this new issue is really worth getting. Those two sets, one issued in 1978 by Mercury Golden Imports (SRI 3-77002) and pressed in The Netherlands and the other in 2004 by Speakers Corner (SR-3-9016). Both of these reissues were cut sourced from 2 channel mixdowns. It so happens I was at Universal’s Emil Berliner Studios in Hanover, Germany in 2003 around the time Willem Makkee was cutting lacquers for the Speakers Corner reissue. Here’s a photo of those tapes:

The Golden Import box is still being sold on Discogs for upwards of $200! The Speakers Corner set sells for less on Discogs—around $80. Neither can remotely compare to this new reissue. Both of the sets sourced from the two track mixdown have an odd and annoying “hooded” quality as if the mixdown engineer added mid-bass and the overall sound is somewhat distant and veiled, with obscured textures and overly warm timbre. Also, the Speakers Corner version was cut too “hot” by the late Mr. Makkee, giving the cello a “grinding” annoying quality.

The original sessions were recorded at Fine Recording’s Ballroom Studio A in New York City, produced by Harold Lawrence and engineered by Robert “Red” Eberenz. Three Schoeps M201 microphones set in omni pattern were hung across the large reverberant space, with Starker positioned nearest to the center microphone. The microphone outputs were fed directly to the 3 track recorder. You will hear at the beginning of side 1, a bit of “image wander” after which there’s perfect focus. You are right there in the room to enjoy the performance as well as the instrument’s glorious textural and timbral beauty.

Here are the 3 versions, unidentified, of Suite 3’s “Bourrées”, which as Peter G. Davis’s liner notes indicate are “genial”. You be the judge of which sounds best.

I won’t identify the turntable or cartridge but I will tell you the phono preamp is the new super quiet iFi Micro iPhono 3 ($999.99) used here with the standard power supply (there’s an upgradded one, both of which will shortly be reviewed). The turntable and cartridge cost around $3200 and will soon be reviewed as well.

File "1"

File "2"

File "3"

Analogue Productions’ 6 200g LPs in 3 double “Tip on” jackets, packaged in a deluxe slip case box is of the highest quality, making the $179 cost more than reasonable considering the effort that went into its production, especially in light of the prices on the inferior sounding and packaged alternatives. The only thing missing here is the fascinating annotation Starker wrote for the Speakers Corner reissue, for which that label most likely holds the copyright. You can't have everything.

For more information on the production of this reissue, watch the embedded video with Tom Fine:

Music Direct Buy It Now

COMMENTS
MRubey's picture

Thank you Michael. Mine is enroute to arrive Monday. I'm really looking forward to it
A little ray of sunshine amidst all of this insanity.

jazz's picture

It’s interesting that Tom says of all Mercury releases only the originals, this one and the 90‘s Classic Records releases were done from 3 track analog tapes. This means the later Grundman mastered releases on ORG were not.

I wonder which other ORG rereleases of previous Classic Records releases used inferior sources, too.

Michael Fremer's picture
3 track masters were not often used vinyl’s “golden age” including RCA and Mercury. 2 channel mix downs were the norm. Cutting directly from 3 is ideal and today Probably more easily accomplished because there’s more time and fewer releases.
jazz's picture

for Classic Records seems to be an exception as an earlier cutting from 3 track, right? Jazz not classical but I guess it was as rare in jazz as in classical.

Aside of that I’d love to have an overview about mastering equipment changes (upgrades as well as tube or solid state) that was used for all those masterings of the same titles Grundman did for Classic Records, ORG and AP.

rshak47's picture

I bought it as soon as it was released. If memory serves (and it may not) I think one could, for a premium, purchase this set autographed by Starker. I didn't opt for this feature, but I still enjoy these records very much.

Elubow's picture

I’m sure this is a great set but so was the Speaker’s Corner. I did not hear the “grinding “ that MF describes, nor did I think it was cut too hot. I thought it a terrific set. So did all the reviews I read at the time. Take a look at buyer’s ratings at Acoustic Sounds for this set.

https://store.acousticsounds.com/d/14235/Janos_Starker-Bach_6_Cello_Suit...

MF may have very discriminating ears, beyond that of most mortals, but, in this case, if you have the SC, I’d say sit back and enjoy a really superior recording. Unless, of course, you must own every version.

jazz's picture

...and I also must say I don’t find quite some negative observations of the Speakers Corner made here (especially not the hot, grinding sound) and therefore see also different ones not mentioned here, even positives.
They do sound very different, but I don’t hear those differences in that extreme good/bad manner described here (although the fact of a tape generation difference certainly implies it)

jazz's picture

if possibly Makee used tube equipment at Emil Berliner‘s and Ryan K Smith solid state at Sterling?

Michael Fremer's picture
Always found the SC sound annoying and bass heavy but had never heard an original. Nor had most people. The new issue is far more relaxed and natural sounding... just is...it’s interesting that on DISCOGs the better packaged SC issue goes for $80 and the Golden Import for far more. Not sure why...
jazz's picture

if possibly Makee used tube equipment at Emil Berliner‘s and Ryan K Smith solid state at Sterling?

jazz's picture

and where I agree is that the SC always was bass heavy, just a bit too much for a cello. So far I thought that was the recording, but it seems it was the mastering of this one. The AP sound more neutral, more like a cello than a small bass. Also the AP sounds more focused in the room and not somehow indifferent as the SC.

What I don’t hear is the grinding hot cut. To me the SC has a (maybe artificial) silky, stringy but clean top end which together with the added bass and the somehow indifferent, spherical ambiance sounds more “spectacular” but less neutral and natural than the AP. Interesting how two versions can sound so different.

Michael Fremer's picture
Are not golden or better than anyone else's. Perhaps it's that my system goes all the way down that makes the 2 track tape's bass boost annoying...
Elubow's picture

My GoldenEar Triton One.5 goes down to 13Hz. I really haven’t been bothered By bass boost.

audiotom's picture

The Speakers Corner has some excellent warm sound.
It may fill the room and not be the true representation of a cello but it sure is inviting.
My son plays classical double bass around the house so there is my reference point.

The double stops Starker makes on the open C string are a little jarriing on all three recordings sampled above but More so on the Speakers Corner. That said Starker is in complete command of his cello, hisTechnique exquisite and his soul conveys Bach ethereal music.

Does one really need another copy when the SC is a very rewarding listen?

If Acoustic Sounds had made this a 33 1/3 rpm set with each suite on a side it would have made a lot more sense. How are the side ending breaks on the 45s?

These 45 rpm - statement audiophile lps piss me off, almost as much as 180 gm and 200 gm Vta issue non-fill nonsense.

billsf's picture

11/11 - I couldn't agree more. I love it and have listened to some of it almost every day since I received it just before the lock-down. It is indeed a great companion and one of the pieces that my wife and I can listen to together. The background stories are much appreciated.

Intermediate Listener's picture

to listen to my original version, acquired about 30 years ago from local (Seattle) used record store for $20, surplus from King County Library. Sounds beautiful to these ears, Starker about 6 feet behind my speakers, dead center.

Michael Fremer's picture
You are obviously all set!
cheyne.mcnab's picture

Hi Michael,

Would you say this is a good entry point into classical work? I have been wanting to expose myself more to the works of this era and want a good all around option that sounds great. Been going through the AP catalog but it's overwhelming. Any suggestions would be great.. thanks!

Michael Fremer's picture
Usually something majestic and dramatic works best. I’d recommend either “Pictures at an Exhibition” or Lt. Kije Suite... both RCA reissues Analogue s Productions did...
Elubow's picture

This set has wonderful cello sound and if you’re looking for a sonic blockbuster only, this might be appealing. But in terms of introducing yourself to classical works, try the well known ones; they’re famous for a reason: Scheherazade, Pictures at an Exhibition, Rhapsody in Blue, New World Symphony, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Symphonies 4,5 and 6, Mozart’s later symphonies, Brahms Symphonies 1-4, Violin Concertos by Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Mendelssohn’s Scotch Symphony. If you want a sonic blockbuster on AP, get Fiedler’s Gaite Parisienne, made in 1954!

Intermediate Listener's picture

Agree with these recs. But if by this era Cheyne means Baroque, it has been largely ignored by AP and other reissue programs. Would be curious, Michael, if you have thoughts on why this is the case. Excellent originals from Neville Mariner/Academy of St. Martins (Argo) and Trevor Pinnock/English Concert (Archiv) can be found on Discogs at reasonable prices. E.g. Handel/Water Music, Bach/harpsichord or violin concertos, many others.
.

audiotom's picture

RCA Living Presence
Reiner BSO Daphne and Chloe - Ravel
explosive dynamics

Elubow's picture

That was Munch, not Reiner.

audiotom's picture

Yes Munch

Sorry

Wonderful performance and recording

MhtLion's picture

Bach 6 Cello Suites got me into the classic. Actually, it got me into this whole audiophile thing too. So, I recommend it!

melody maker's picture

...for our new-to-classical friend. Let's add The Planets, a surefire winner (in a good performance and recording) for rock ears! Along with many excellent pricier versions, you can get Steinberg on DG for pennies and it's terrific.

I haven't purchased the new AP box under discussion. I have a Speakers Corner and I used to own an original. Original had great sound (perhaps if I remember correctly a bit less bassy than SC, maybe confirming MF's opinion), but buried under too much surface noise so I swapped it.

Intermediate Listener's picture

on my originals.

melody maker's picture

... congrats!

I prolly should've hung onto some LPs I let go for noise over the years, because better carts with better styli have been cutting down on the noise I hear on my records for years... I bet I let some great stuff go.

melody maker's picture

... thanks to MF for those terrific Starker stories. I smiled in recognition at the quote about teaching feeding performing and vice-versa: at a level of virtuosity a million miles below Starker's, I too have had this experience.

Happy Will's picture

Several years ago I had a white lable copy of the SC issue and didn't "get it". It didn't sound quite right to me, and I got bored, so I sold it, preferring other versions. However to my ears the AP reissue is a cut above and has that X factor that makes the difference - maybe small differences, but important to me.

saxman73's picture

I am not sure which is which but, upon first listening (just a computer to Etymotic Research ER-4 headphones), I very much prefer file 1. I hear more detail (bowing, articulation). Also, I prefer the panning, the cello seems more centered to me (although this is a bit hard to tell on headphones), and I get more of a sense of the room. Overall, I get into the music more. I'd be curious to listen to the differences in my main system, but at least for now, that's the one I'd like to listen to! Of course, the music and playing are fantastic.

Jerome Sabbagh

phumiston's picture

the benefits of 45rpm releases. MoFi’s “Get Happy” and their one-step “Fragile” are both wonderful – and logically broken up over four sides. But for me, there is something too logical about 6 suites and 6 sides. I really don’t want to pause-for-the-cause in the middle of each of these magical compositions/performances. I’ll stick to my Golden Imports set, which I bought in 2002 at a Half-Price Books (virtually un-played) for $2.00. That same year at the same store, I bought a black Capitol Milstein “Encores” for 50 cents...

Paul Boudreau's picture

I wonder whether a more chronological approach would work? Start off with a little Gregorian Chant then work up to the 20th century. I suppose that would be more like a music-appreciation class sort of thing but everything is built on something that came before so why not?

Happy Will's picture

Listening on my computer it has to be File 1.

Glotz's picture

Died laughing about 5 minutes ago... OMG, but such a great analogy! (Re-Boulder 2018 column)

dgmono's picture

When will the identities of the three audio clips be revealed? I found that file 1 had more detail and a more solid center image. Files two and three had slightly less detail and a weaker center image. Otherwise all sounded great. Was I supposed to hear some "not even close" difference?? lol

Barretter's picture

should really read "as an English-speaking person might imagine it is pronounced if they had no knowledge of other languages". A single S in the Hungarian alphabet is pronounced SH as in the name of the Hungarian conductor Georg Solti, prnounced Sholti. The S sound is represented in the Hungarian alphabet as SZ as in the name of the composer Liszt, pronounced List.

miguelito's picture

Analogue Production reissues are truly amazing across the board.

I wonder if this reissue will be available in SACD as well?

Thx

jazz's picture

1 = AP
2 = SC
3 = GI

Differences between AP and SC are bigger
on my vinyl setup, but’s so far that’s my guess.

diannaci's picture

Band music! As in Symphonic Band music. The place to start would be the famous Telarc Cleveland
Symphonic Winds recording of Gustav Holst’s Suites No. 1 and 2 for band. Recorded in 1978 by Thomas Stockham on the Soundstream Digital Recording System (50khz) and mastered to vinyl at half speed by Stan Ricker. Spectacular sound and performances and not at all digital sounding. Though released early in the 1980’s on CD (Avoid! The CD is hideous!), strangely it was never rereleased on vinyl. But I got a sealed copy earlier this year on eBay for $20. I bet your high school band director has a copy you could borrow... Reference Recordings also has a number of recordings available by the Dallas Wind Symphony on vinyl as well as other formats, all wonderful musically and technically.

audiotom's picture

I have owned the SC copy of this since it came out in 2004.
Will all my vinyl I think I have probably played this 5 times.
It is a stunning recording and captures the sound of Starker's impeccable playing.

This $$$ would buy 3-5 other worldly "audiophile" releases

You want more cello - find an inexpensive copy of Dave Holland's Full Circle (1980s) it's digital but doesn't sound like.

Or Eric Friedlander - his John Zorn Book of Angels Cello Suites are sublime. His work unfortunately is all on cd but sounds excellent

s10sondek's picture

Track 2 sounds closest to what I imagine the Telefunken 201M would pick up in Fine's studio: a bit lean with a top end rising gradually from +0db at 1.5k to +7db at 12k. This gives the proceedings an open and airy quality, like many Mercury Living Presence recordings from this era often exhibit (but which also means that any playback transducers must exhibit exceptionally low distortion and either ruler-flat or downward-sloping response in that same 3-octave range to prevent an undue screechiness and hardness).

Tracks 1 and 3 sound more similar to one another than either does relative to Track 2. Relative to Track 2, these appear to have had some equalization applied, reducing amplitude in the top octaves, making the cello appear more midrange-forward and bass-heavy. My guess is that any two-track dupe-dub made in the 1970s by Philips for the Golden Imports reissue employed some form of noise reduction that may have also tamped down the top end. But it could’ve been conscious EQ choice as well. Additionally, some compression may have been applied (as was often done in those days for cutting masters) that reduced dynamic range. The end result is a curious combination of a more forward, midrangy and blunted cello sound. Beyond that, track 1 appears to have had some additional compression added during cutting, which makes the low-level bow scraping and breathing sounds more evident throughout.

Compared to the CD reissue from 1991, supervised by Wilma Cozart Fine, Track 3 matches the closest, followed by Track 1 (featuring the more evident bow scrape and breathing noises), and finally by Track 2 (which doesn’t really match at all, with its decidedly leaner, airier, and more open quality). I am not sure what source was used by Wilma Cozart Fine in 1991, but I would guess the same source used for tracks 1 and 3.

I went back and listened to my Golden Imports box and, lo and behold, it exhibits the prominent bow-scrape noises and a similar overall tonal balance to track 1. Also, the bass-heavy room tone signature matches almost perfectly with that of track 1.

So, based on the foregoing, I am surmising the following identification for these tracks:

Track 1: Golden Imports Reissue
Track 2: Analog Production Reissue
Track 3: Speaker’s Corner Reissue

As with any subjective endeavor, I may be slightly wrong or all the way off the mark. It doesn’t take much of a skew in frequency response or detail retrieval in one’s playback chain to stand a subjective conclusion on its head. The above are just my best guess.

zbub's picture

Last week I visited a friend to audition his new Wilson XVX speakers with a pair of Subsonic subwoofers. Two of the records we listened to were the Golden Imports and the new AP 45-rpm set. To be able to play the same cut one after another was a very good learning experience, as the two sets were actually quite different in both sound and meaning. We both agreed on the preferred edition between the two sets and it was obvious.

My 18-year old son plays cello, and the Bouree from Suite No. 3 was one piece of music that he learned and practiced a couple of years ago. I sat and listen in front of him countless times, and all I can say is that cellos sound much smaller live than most recordings tend to suggest. In this regard, sample 1 and 3 had more accurate and (more) clearly defined shape than sample 2. Sample 2 just sounded diffused and HUGE. Yes all the frequencies were there but didn't show the correct size of the instrument. Of the 3 selections my personal preference was 3, and least favorite was 2.

I then played all 3 samples to my son and asked for his opinion. His favorite was sample 3 as it was more poetic and the music flows better. Somehow sample 1 he was hearing more mistakes ("need more rosin on the bow" was one of the comments.)but still quite good. Sample 2 was his least favorite.

saxman73's picture

I listened to the three first suites over the last couple of days and I'm about to put the fourth one on. I don't have another set to compare it to but the AP set is great is every respect. It's worth the money in my opinion, considering what you are getting (I also got it for 15% off when Acoustic Sounds was running a 4th of July sale, they seem to be running sales like this fairly often ...). I think the music and interpretation are fantastic, and the sound is great.

Jerome Sabbagh

s10sondek's picture

Michael,

Will you at some point in the near future please reveal the identity of the three excerpts you posted two weeks ago? I'm sure there are many of us who would love to know which was the SC, GI, and AP!

jazz's picture

is why only so few contribute

Leonthepro's picture

1. AP
2. SC
3. Golden

Number 1 is most forward and the brightest / least bass of them all.
Number 2 and 3 are very similar but none sounds bad to me. I think I do prefer 1 for its present and slightly more bright sound which is realistic I think.
I only worry about how side transitions on the AP will affect the flow.

s10sondek's picture

Will we ever find out the identity of each track? It has been nearly three months since they were originally posted. I'm sure all the people here who invested their time and energy listening critically and posting their observations would greatly appreciate getting some closure here. Thanks!

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