Istomin and Serkin in the late 1940s
That Istomin would be perverted by success was Serkin’s great fear! This concern was all the greater because this success had come very early and the risk was not to be neglected. Winning two prestigious competitions in a row, making his debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra and then with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in the same week was enough to turn heads.
If Serkin was often right in thinking that his student was not working enough, he was wrong in imagining that applause would override his musical ambition. It was even the opposite that happened. When Istomin played the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto for Serkin, his teacher complimented him (which rarely happened and encouraged him to perform it in concert. Istomin played it with great success in Chicago in 1944, but immediately abandoned it. He intended to devote himself primarily to the greatest composers: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin and Brahms.
Even before his twentieth birthday, Istomin, who asserted that he was a libertine of music in his youth years, had adopted his teacher’s Jansenism in terms of repertoire. When by chance he attacked a bravura piece, such as Chopin’s Polonaise “Héroïque”, he exalted its dramatic tension rather than its virtuosity, even if it might disappoint fireworks lovers.
This reluctance to succeed went much further than the rejection of gratuitous virtuosity or a demonstrative attitude to the keyboard. He knew very early on, in his early childhood, that playing the piano attracted attention, affection and admiration. It could very quickly become an exercise of seduction, fascinating indeed, but dangerous and potentially immoral. He decided to devote himself first and foremost to his musical ideal rather than to conquering the public, telling Robert Jacobson: “I don’t seek, or I no longer seek to be loved.” When John Gruen asked him in 1971 why he was not more considered as a star, he replied: “Wild public popularity… this is something I am very dubious about. I haven’t courted it in the early stage of my public life. I think you have to want to be wildly loved and wildly applauded. You have to do things to make this happen. I’ve always been repelled by that from the very start, because my tendency was always to get to the substance rather to the appearance of music.”
Istomin knew what he would have to do for triggering public hysteria and media curiosity: to stage his playing, technically and emotionally, with great gestures and faces, to program a few pieces able to rise thunderous applause, to indulge in numerous encores, to thank the audience with a hand on his heart. A good press service would have helped to build an attractive image, on or off stage, in glamour or in non-conformity.
Not only did Istomin refuse these compromises, which would almost give him the impression of prostituting himself and making music the instrument of his success, but he exactly did the opposite. For example, he quite never gave more than two encores. He chose a very interiorized piece as the second encore, announcing before playing that it was with this piece that he was taking leave. Thus he cut short the effusions, the applause of spectators looking for possible other encores. In the same way, he was reluctant to play an encore after a concerto, finding it almost inappropriate to occupy the stage alone in the middle of an orchestral concert.
More than a lack of charisma, which some have regretted, it was a deliberate approach, very damaging in terms of career. During the May 1971 recital mentioned above, Bernard Jacobson expressed his disappointment in the Chicago Daily News at the strange functioning of the American musical world: “If cabotinage was the benchmark measure of artistic merit, it could almost be understood that Istomin had not played with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in seven seasons, although he had once been a frequent guest, or that his recital in the Orchestra’s main hall was the first he had given here. »