All the young pianists of Istomin’s generation (Kapell, Graffman, Janis, Katchen, and even Fleisher) have built their careers more or less on the concertos by Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and Khatchaturian. During the 1940s and 1950s, this repertoire was the most effective path to success. Istomin refused, playing the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto only once in 1944. Despite the rapturous reception of the public and the critics, he abandoned it forever. David Oppenheim had to insist strongly that Istomin agree to tackle the Rachmaninoff Second and the Tchaikovsky First and record them for Columbia (in 1956 and 1959). Yet he rarely played them in concert, dropping them from his repertoire as soon as 1963. Much later in his career, he turned again to the Russian composers, no longer to perform blockbusters but to champion works he considered unfairly underestimated: the Variations on a theme by Chopin (which he finally renounced playing in public) and the Fourth Concerto by Rachmaninoff, the Medtner Sonata in G minor Opus 22.
What Istomin had also absolutely refused was to appear as a Russian pianist. For a long time, this has been a very promising argument in the United States. Olga Samaroff, the eminent American pianist, was born in Texas and her real name was Lucy Mary Olga Agnes Hickenlooper. With the help of her Russian pseudonym, she began a very successful career in 1905, which she had to interrupt in 1925 due to an unfortunate fall. She was the first performer after Hans von Bülow to play the Beethoven 32 Sonatas in concert, and her prestige was such that she was able to impose Leopold Stokowski, her husband, at the music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Russian performers often received a wild welcome during their tours in the United States: Oïstrakh and Guilels in 1955, Rostropovitch in 1956, the Bolshoi Ballet in 1959, Richter in 1960. These tours were organized by Sol Hurok, the great American impresario of Russian origin, who had closed connections with the Soviet authorities.
Hurok had been interested in Istomin after his success at the Leventritt Competition and his debut with the New York Philharmonic. He promised to establish him as a star, intending to capitalize on the young pianist’s Russian origins. Hurok had no hesitation in introducing Serkin on his first American tour in 1936-37 as a “sensational Russian pianist”! Istomin did not want to get this image. He refused Hurok’s proposal and chose, on Serkin’s advice, the other great American manager, Arthur Judson.
However, Istomin eventually joined Hurok in 1962, at Isaac Stern’s request, when the rise of the Trio made it preferable for its three members to have the same manager. Sol Hurok organized, under the aegis of the State Department, Istomin’s one and only tour of the USSR in 1965.