A week after his father’s death on November 22, 1971, Istomin was on stage at Carnegie Hall to give a recital. The event was highly publicized, as Istomin was repeatedly in the spotlight of the musical news at the time. The day before the recital, a large profile by John Gruen appeared in the New York Times. It was entitled Istomin: ‘I Like to Be Alone’.
The journalist confessed to being surprised that Istomin’s exceptional talent and rich career did not make him more famous, and wondered about his lack of charisma: why didn’t he trigger public hysteria and media curiosity? Istomin’s answer was clear: “I think you have to do things to make this happen. I’ve been repelled by that from the very start, because my tendency was always to get to the substance rather than to the appearance of music.” There are many examples of great pianists who have attracted attention by showing off. The most famous was Rubinstein attacking Falla’s Dance of Fire with his hands above his head. Even Serkin, a symbol of musical Jansenism, also played for the eyes (probably largely unconsciously), singing, tapping his foot, bending over the keyboard and then throwing himself backwards as though possessed.
In his conversation with John Gruen, Istomin took self-criticism even further. He admitted to being pretentious: “When I was still in my teens, I would attempt the sort of repertoire that other artists would only attempt in their fifties and sixties. I took on the challenge of being Schnabel or Serkin in my twenties, which was perfectly ridiculous. I was too much of a snob. It would be much easier to stick to the splashy Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff warhorses.” If he had done so, critics would not have blamed him for being too young, whereas they seemed to take malicious pleasure in commenting on his youth when he played the Beethoven Fourth Concerto or the Brahms Second. He found it amusing and remarked: “I was my own worst enemy in the early days”. From the very beginning, he followed his ideal and let himself be guided by his intuition, without thinking in terms of building a career.
In this same year 1971, Istomin felt he knew himself better: “I am a musician-virtuoso, and it is a rather unusual combination”. Indeed, he always strove to blend the virtuosity of Heifetz or Toscanini with the musicality of Casals or Busch. As for his repertoire, Eugene had no real doubts: “I think I am a very idiomatic Chopin player. I play Debussy very well, and Ravel. I’ve played Rachmaninoff very well and, of course, Mozart and Beethoven. This is a lot of repertory and it combines the various aspects of my personality.”
John Gruen tried to summarize his approach: “He seems to go at the music not so much from the pianist’s point of view as a composer’s point of view. With him, it is always a question of searching out the essentials – of pursuing inner structure and tensions that bind thought to expression.” Asked about his main reference about piano playing, Istomin did not hesitate: “I have always wanted to express my personality through the sound of my piano. That’s what matters to me, and that’s what Rachmaninoff used to do. He would show up on stage without a single muscle in his face moving, and his appearance was very austere and cold, and then he would make music in a beautiful, wonderful way.”
At forty-five, Istomin had lost some of his illusions about the musical world, but he had gained in lucidity and remained very confident in his ability to follow to the very end the path which he claimed to be his: “I think I’m now at the beginning of my peak as an artist”. It was of no concern to him that this path did not lead to fame. Istomin admitted that he sometimes “makes it difficult” for those who wanted to like him. This interview is further evidence of his reluctance to seduce. Any other artist could scarcely have dreamt of being given such a long profile (nearly a full-page spread!) in The New York Times, and would have taken every opportunity to present himself in the best light. Istomin did not deliver any glamour, juicy anecdote, or any striking or provocative thoughts. His only concern was to be true and sincere, even going so far as confessing to his own flaws and mistakes.
In the early 1970s, critics noticed that Istomin had changed his attitude at the piano. He had certainly never shown off, but his playing became even more sober. Musically, he seemed more introverted and “classical”, in the noblest sense of the word. In February of 1971, when he played the Chopin Second Concerto at Carnegie Hall with the Cleveland Orchestra under his friend Jerzy Semkow, the New York Times critic Allen Hughes wrote: “He gave the concerto cool tonal clarity that would have honored Mozart and went very well with Chopin. Also, his phrasing had an aristocratic logic and refinement… that emphasized his classical approach to music.”
After a recital in Chicago in May, Thomas Willis titled his review in the Chicago Tribune: “Istomin Is a Welcome Antidote”. Further on, he detailed his point of view: “A welcome antidote to the histrionics that affect so many of the fire and brimstone technicians who surround him”. His colleague from the Chicago Sun Times, Robert C. Marsh, proclaimed: “The classicist can play it all”. Bernard Jacobson, an eminent journalist and musicologist, gave the Chicago Daily News a rave review. He deplored the strange running of the American musical world: “If superficial showmanship were any index of artistic worth, it might even be understandable that he has not appeared with the Chicago Symphony in the past seven seasons, though formerly a frequent guest, or that his Orchestra Hall recital was the first he has given there.” Jacobson was overwhelmed with enthusiasm for everything he heard that evening, and was especially moved by the Schubert Sonata in D major: “This was playing of heart-rending sublimity”. Roger Dettmer was even more enthusiastic in the Chicago American/Today. Noting with satisfaction that the immense Symphony Hall was packed to the rafters, which rarely occurred for piano recitals, his review was ecstatic from its opening title (“Pianist Istomin Spellbinding”) to its conclusion (“Welcome to the pinnacle, Mr. Istomin, and profoundest thanks”).
This Chicago recital was one of the highlights of Istomin’s season. It produced the most unanimous critical approbation he ever received. He could expect such a triumph, six months later, when playing almost the same program at Carnegie Hall, where the reception from the audience was rapturous. Some of the critics followed suite. Harriett Johnson of the New York Post noted that Istomin had “an old soul”. She described Istomin as an “introspective poet” and a “royal loner”. She admired his amazing mastery, his exquisite singing tone and the versatility of his art, moving so easily from Brahms to Debussy and Chopin. And she concludes with a quote from Stravinsky: “You don’t change, you just add”. Inevitably, the New York Times was once again unfriendly. Donal Henahan’s review was condescending, ending with an awkward mix-up between the Chopin Military and Heroic Polonaises.
1971 was a particularly rich year and a crucial one for Istomin. It might have given a new impetus to his career – but for many different reasons, this failed to happen. Istomin once said in an interview: “I owe my career to all the great conductors who trusted me, who recognized me as one of their own, and who hired me again even when the critics destroyed me. They believed in me, they enjoyed conducting for me, and that was the only thing that mattered.” By the early 1970s, most of these great conductors had disappeared. Rodzinski, the first to support him, died in 1958, ten years after being driven out from New York and Chicago by Judson. Mitropoulos, forced to resign in New York, died of a heart attack two years later. Between 1962 and 1964, Bruno Walter, Fritz Reiner and Pierre Monteux died. At the same time, Charles Munch and Paul Paray, both great friends, gave up their positions as music directors in Boston and Detroit, as did Bernstein in 1969 in New York. In 1970, Szell died and Josef Krips left San Francisco. Among the music directors of the old generation, only William Steinberg, Eugene Ormandy and Antal Dorati were still active and would continue to invite him for another decade.
New conductors had come from Europe who mainly knew him as the pianist of the famous Trio Istomin-Stern-Rose. More than a change of generation, it was a change of civilization! The marketing era that had pervaded the record business at the turn of the 1960s was also invading the concert world. Music directors were no longer the almighty maestros. They now spent a limited number of weeks with their orchestra. Some of them were even musical directors of two orchestras at the same time. In addition to their tenure, they travelled continuously around the world for guest conducting. They were forced to delegate a large part of their responsibilities to managers, for whom high musical quality was no longer a priority. When hiring a guest conductor or a soloist, they were more concerned with making a splash than in building a coherent musical project. They no longer invited the soloists who had been welcomed for many years, replacing them instead by newcomers who were likely to arouse the curiosity of the media and the public. Managers began to give in to the lobbying of record companies, which were jockeying to secure places for their protégés and promised to promote their concerts. In one such incident, a conductor specifically requested Istomin to be his soloist. The manager promised to take care of it, but replied that unfortunately, Istomin was not available. He had not even bothered to ask.
Of course, Istomin had a number of collaborations with conductors of the new generation. Relationships often seemed very cordial. However, some conductors seemed to be apprehensive about inviting him. He had played under the greatest, whose intimidating shadows were still palpably floating around him. Istomin had the reputation of being difficult at times, though he was invariably respectful. It is true that he never resorted to flattering the conductor, as so many soloists do. It was impossible for him to compliment anybody without sincerity, or even to dissimulate what he really thought.
Istomin had no contact whatsoever with Muti, Boulez, Giulini, Dohnányi or De Waart, conductors who became music directors of some of the biggest American orchestras. Collaboration with Ozawa, Dutoit, Marriner, Maazel or Slatkin turned out to be limited. The relationship with Zubin Mehta had been very promising, but only resulted in occasional invitations. It could be that Mehta took offense when Istomin was quoted as saying in the Los Angeles Times that he had fantastic talent, but was constantly on the go conducting and globe-trotting, without reserving sufficient time for reflection and study. Unfortunately, other exciting collaborations never materialized (Abbado cancelled his concerts in Puerto Rico) or were interrupted (Tennstedt had to give up his career due to ill-health).
By this time, there were only a handful of musical directors in the States with whom Istomin had kept lasting links: Skrowaczewski, Zinman, Semkow, Comissiona, Schwarz… These collaborations were enjoyable, but the doors of the most prestigious American orchestras were now closed to him. After his triumphant recital in 1971 at the Chicago Symphony Hall, Istomin was invited to Ravinia in the summer of 1972 and played Mozart’s Concerto K. 271 under Georg Solti in April 1973, but there were no further projects. Istomin had given 36 concerts with the Chicago Symphony in the first half of his career, but he did not give a single concert in the second. The same holds true of the Boston Symphony (27 concerts between 1955 and 1969, none thereafter), and of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (32 concerts between 1943 and 1968, only one thereafter).
It must be said that the competition between pianists was fierce. A large number of talented young musicians were trying to conquer the United States in the 1970s: Argerich, Ashkenazy, Barenboïm, Brendel, Lupu, Perahia, Pollini, Watts… In addition, orchestra repertoire was undergoing a profound evolution: the public was discovering the post-romantic repertoire and almost every conductor was eager to assert himself in Mahler and Bruckner symphonies. These huge symphonies generally left no room for a concerto. Istomin’s repertoire was also problematical. He tended to propose either the most popular concertos that many pianists were willing to perform (Mozart 21 and 24; Beethoven 3, 4 and 5; Brahms 2; Chopin 2), or extremely rare and difficult works (Szymanowski’s Symphonie Concertante, Rachmaninoff’s Fourth Concerto) that no orchestra was eager to program.
The break with Columbia had a negative impact. At that time, a musician who did not make records as a soloist saw his image and notoriety fade. Istomin’s latest recordings were published in 1969 (Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto) and 1970 (Schubert’s Sonata in D Major). They had received very little publicity and were scarcely available in Europe. The situation of classical music in the United States began to deteriorate, and the interest of the media, public authorities and patrons was slowly but inexorably decreasing. The great enthusiasm that had lasted several decades was dying out. Once again, Europe became the heart of the music world. Bernstein, Serkin and Horowitz left their US record companies for Deutsche Grammophon and returned more and more often to Europe. From the mid-1960s, Istomin also came to Europe more often, without soliciting any record company. His European career developed in France, Italy, the UK and Spain (after Franco’s death). Still marked by the tragedy of WW II, he refused invitations from Karl Böhm and Josef Krips for concerts in Vienna. He would eventually accept a few engagements in Germany and Austria from 1974.
“I guess I’m just an old-fashioned kind of musician”, Istomin said in an interview in 1970. Certainly, he was nostalgic for the old musical world, and he was very reluctant to adapt and make concessions. Seventeen years later, the changes had accelerated, and the situation had worsened. Istomin was no longer a leading figure in the American music world, and his career in Europe did not develop as expected. He still gave numerous concerts which were well received, but he was no longer invited to the most prestigious venues. It was painful for him, but he managed not to let himself be overwhelmed by frustration. After all, he was still performing and feeling grateful appreciation by his public, as well as receiving priceless marks of esteem from great musicians. Moreover, he had an idea which might reconciliate his nostalgia for the old times and give new momentum to his career!
Chopin. Ballade No. 4 in F minor Op. 52. Eugene Istomin. Studio recording (1973).
Brahms, Violin Sonata No. 1 in G major Op. 78, the last two movements (Adagio; Allegro moderato). Eugene Istomin, Isaac Stern. Studio recording 1973.
Beethoven. Concerto No. 5 in E flat major Op. 73 “Emperor”, first movement (Allegro). Eugene Istomin, Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy. Live recording on May 17, 1983.