Encounters with a Legend
Peter Feuchtwanger recalls a great artist and a cherished friend
Youra Guller: a great spiritual force
I first heard Youra Guller in 1959, at a bitterly disappointing recital in the Wigmore Hall. Since then, I'd forgotten all about her, though somewhere at the back of my mind I recalled that one of her short encores had afforded a brief glimpse of past glories (in her younger days she had been something of a legend). Six years later, I attended a recital by Robert Majek, who had studied with her. Afterwards I joined a small party of friends for an after-concert dinner, when who should enter the restaurant but Youra Guller herself, making a characteristically regal entrance, instantly exerting her mysterious magnetism on all those present. She joined us, and I found myself sitting opposite her, and we soon discovered that we had mutual friends. As the evening wore on I became increasingly intrigued by her curious detachment and her evident unconcern with the impression she made. ´Do you know somewhere I could practise?´ she asked with apparent innocence, though surely she must have predicted my reply! I told her I would be going for my Schenker lesson the following day, and that she would be very welcome to practise at my house in London while I was away. She accepted my offer gratefully, and I told her that a friend would let her in and make her feel at home.
Next day, halfway through my Schenker lesson, I received a phone call from my friend Michael, who had admitted her. He had been listening to her play from the hallway. ´This woman who's playing, what did you say her name is? She's the most wonderful pianist since Clara Haskil!´ One can imagine my surprise, as I recalled that awful recital back in 1959. Nevertheless, I returned to the house as soon as possible. Youra, looking tired and drawn, was taking tea, and Michael appeared a little dazed by her company. His eyes rested on the keyboard, as if willing her to begin playing again. Then, turning directly to her, he asked, indeed almost demanded, that she continue. ´But of course!´ She was delighted to acquiesce. I prepared myself for the worst. She began with the Liszt transcription of Bach's A minor Prelude and Fugue for organ. All trace of tiredness disappeared. From the very first bars, shivers ran through my body. The room echoed and reverberated with the magnificent fortissimo she obtained so effortlessly from my small Steinway. I felt that I was in the presence of a great spiritual force. I could not recall having heard playing of such magnitude before. The woman at the piano hardly moved, and again seemed quite unconcerned about the effect she was having on her audience. I held my breath, gripped by this magisterial force of enormous grandeur, not daring to move, simply absorbing these very special moments.
As we listened, time seemed to stop. Occasionally, Youra turned round to us at the end of a piece, as if grateful for our attention. She then played Beethoven Opp. 110 and 111. The chords melted into each other, her legato smooth as silk, the tone exquisite. Next came Chopin's F minor Ballade, the Barcarolle and some Mazurkas. After this feast, she seemed to surprise herself as much as us by turning to a very different, tempestuous world: that of The Miller's Dance from da Falla's ballet The Three-Cornered Hat. Now the piano expressed the fiery passions of flamenco. Words cannot express how enthralled the events of that day left us. As Youra was about to go, my mind was racing. I couldn't wait to experience her playing again. I asked for details of her next concerts. ´I have none,´ she replied. This struck me as extraordinary ´But Madame Guller, you are a genius!´ She had probably heard this tired cliché many times, yet she smiled, a faint glimmer of hope lighting up her face and revealing traces of the beauty that had once earned her the offer to star in a film in place of Greta Garbo.
I looked at the telephone and thought at once of Charles Napper - an excellent amateur pianist, a pupil of mine, now middle-aged, a great music lover, and, most importantly for me at that instant, a generous benefactor of needy musicians. ´Just a moment,´ I said to Youra, ´I have to make a phone call.´ I rang Charles at his Hampstead home. ´But I had no idea she was even alive! In my student days in Paris I used to worship her.´ I recounted the events of the morning, and asked him to join us as soon as possible. He duly arrived, visibly nervous and excited. Youra's charm filled the room like a wonderful rare perfume that had just had its stopper removed. This moment marked her great breakthrough. I asked her if she could play one last piece. ´I should love to.´ Overcome by what he heard, Charles then asked Youra if she would like him to get her concerts and invited her to tea the next day to discuss her future. Afterwards, Youra rang me, seemingly overwhelmed. ´I can't believe my luck is changing. How can I ever repay you? You hardly know me!´ A glowing article by Joan Chissell in a leading newspaper, entitled ´Return of a Legendary Pianist´, brought Youra back to prominence in the press. Concerts followed, and she even secured an expense account to help her on her way. Her career was on the mend.
When Youra died in 1985 she left an inordinately small legacy of discs for posterity, considering her stature as a pianist and her large repertoire. Nimbus, Erato and recently Dante in France have made her artistry available to all, and I myself had professional recordings made of all her Wigmore Hall recitals which I treasure. Those who had the good fortune to know Youra Guller and to hear her play feel her loss very keenly.
18 PIANO NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 1999.