Obituaries: Raya Garbousova

The distinguished Russian-born cellist Raya Garbousova seemed to be virtually immortal. She not only looked 20 years younger than her age, but also possessed remarkable energy that enabled her to teach and give master-classes right up to the end.

She was born in Tiflis in Georgia into a family of musicians: her father was principal trumpeter of the Tiflis Symphony Orchestra and professor at the Conservatory. She began studies on piano at the age of four and when she heard her father's friend Serge Koussevitsky playing double-bass she decided she liked the deep sound and started on the cello at six. Her progress was so rapid she entered the Tiflis Conservatory the following year as a student of Konstantin Miniar, a pupil of Davidov.

After a successful debut in Tiflis and many solo appearances, in 1924, aged 18, she made debuts in Moscow and Leningrad, where a critic compared her playing to that of Emanuel Feuermann. Also at this time, she played chamber music with two young musicians just making a name for themselves in Russia, Nathan Milstein and Vladimir Horowitz.

Garbousova made her debut recital in Berlin in 1926 with the pianist Michael Taube, and again the critics raved about her "colossal talent" and described her as "an exceptional musical phenomenon". It was Taube who introduced her to Albert Einstein, who had a passion for the violin. She told me: "I played chamber music with him, but I'm sorry to say he wasn't very good and was always a little bit out of tune. But he was a wonderful old man and we became very attached to each other." Einstein remained a devoted fan and would place a box of chocolates on the stage instead of flowers.

She made her Paris debut in 1927 and it was there that she met Casals and studied with him. She later appeared in Barcelona as a soloist with Casals conducting his own orchestra. It was he who suggested she should study with Diran Alexanian and she considered that what she learnt from him remained all her life as her "musical capital":

What I learnt from him was overwhelming. His whole approach to the instrument changed my ideas. I also returned to him much later and that became one of the most important periods in my musical life. It was not only the tuition but the discussions we had about everything you can imagine - quite apart from music - which were of the greatest importance.

Garbousova's London debut took place in 1926 and again the critics were bowled over by her talent. Her first American engagement came about because the pianist Ossip Gabrilovitch had heard her in Paris and immediately invited her to play the Haydn D major Concerto with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, of which he was the conductor. Shortly afterwards she was engaged as a soloist by Serge Koussevitsky, now conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This was a happy reunion for them both.

In 1934 Garbousova made her recital debut at the Town Hall in New York and Olin Downes from the New York Times waxed lyrical: "Miss Garbousova's technique is the vehicle of a contagious temperament, musicianship and taste. The crowning fact is the distinction of her style." From this time onwards she appeared in concerts all over the world, but made her home in Paris. Her first husband died fighting in the French Resistance in 1943 and in 1946 she became a citizen of the United States, where she met and in 1949 married the cardiologist Dr Kurt Biss. Their two sons are both musicians.

Many composers wrote works for Garbousova: she commissioned and premiered the Samuel Barber Concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Koussevitsky in 1946 and was frequently consulted by the composer on the instrumental possibilities related to the cello; it was published with the cello part edited by Garbousova. She also premiered the Martinu Third Sonata in the US and Prokofiev's Sonata. She made numerous recordings and held master- classes world-wide. She was professor of cello at Hartford University (1970-79) and at Northern Illinois University (1979-91), where she was made Honorary Doctor of Human Letters in 1992.

Garbousova was not only a very beautiful woman with a film-star charisma, but kind, gentle and considerate to all who came within her orbit. She also had a delightful sense of humour. There is a story from her early years about when she was at a party and took on a five- dollar bet to kiss Toscanini, who was sitting at the next table. The maestro was delighted to be approached by such a beautiful young girl and offered the other cheek. Encouraged by his enthusiasm she kissed him on both cheeks with the excuse that she could now claim 10 dollars.

Raya Garbousova, cellist: born Tiflis, Georgia 25 September 1909; twice married (two sons); died DeKalb, Illinois 28 January 1997.

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