Manuscript of the first movement of the Waldstein Sonata
In the profile he wrote in The New York Times, James Gruen confessed to being confused by Istomin’s personality. He believed that although Istomin showed “masterful and dazzling control” on stage, he was in fact a tortured and enigmatic being. Gruen was struck by his ‘’brooding Beethovenesque disposition’’, and many people who were familiar with him noticed it too. His grumpy character and reluctance to smile, combined with sudden, rare but violent outbursts of anger remind one of Beethoven. But above all, there was a common need for solitude and the same intense pain following disappointments, which would be swept away by the strength of will, the desire to live, faith in humanity, and the certainty that good would eventually prevail. The Waldstein Sonata is the ideal expression of this spirit, and it was Istomin’s emblematic piece.
In interview at the French Television (1970)
His sense of certainty made him appear to be arrogant, but within him existed a great deal of doubt, humility and self-derision. At first sight, he seemed quite cold and distant, even intimidating, but very quickly, one discovered warmth and humanity behind his modesty. It was very difficult for him to hide what he was feeling, and he could not refrain from saying what he thought. This sincerity was harmful to his career, but even though he became a little more careful with age, he never abandoned it. After getting angry, he forgot quickly and never held a grudge, as evidenced by his many disputes with Stern, which never jeopardized their sense of fraternity.
Whether in terms of musical integrity or career and life ethics, Istomin absolutely refused to make any concessions, whatever the consequences: he never played a piece in which he had nothing personal to say, never attempted to win over the audience, did not cultivate people who could further his career, and never hesitated to speak out against injustice or to become involved in politics.
He had a boundless sense of curiosity, and his mind could bubble over at any moment: “I can’t go on without knowing” was one of his favorite expressions. He kept a childlike enthusiasm, always ready to become enthused about a project or an idea. In this process there was a paradoxical association of intuition (according to Plato, the instant awareness of the truth of an idea by the soul) and the desire for knowledge and intellectualization.
On a material level, he was quite detached from any sense of ownership. He had never bought a house or apartment before moving to Washington with Marta, and he never owned a car. All his money went into books and works of art, and in general for things which gave him pleasure, such as great restaurants or fine wines. He wanted his comfort and standing, especially for travel (like flights on the Concorde!) and hotels. He found that this suited his status as an artist and compensated for the obligations of his itinerant life.
His deep-seated mistrust for managers and the music business made him exacting about fees. He could not bear to be exploited, but he was always willing to adapt his conditions when he felt it was justified. He also showed great generosity when it came to giving benefit concerts, or in offering his fees. He was just as generous with his friends in trouble, so much so that Marta sometimes had to ask him to be more careful!
In Istomin, there was a sense of openness to others, a benevolence and an ability to listen which are rarely found. Pianists were never rivals, and he enjoyed being friendly with very simple people. His friendships were characterized by a great sense of tact and loyalty, as witnessed by the organization of Clara Haskil’s American tour in 1956, or by the invitation to Horszowski, who thus finally could make his debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1978.