Schubert’s place in Istomin’s repertoire is not commensurate with the affection and admiration he had for him. When asked which works he would take with him on a desert island, he replied: Don Giovanni, the St. Matthew Passion and Schubert’s Cello Quintet. For a long time, Istomin searched for the works by Schubert which best suited him and in which he would have something personal to say. It is no coincidence that the only two sonatas (D. 664 and D. 850) he played throughout his career are among Schubert’s most extroverted works. Other sonatas, especially the latest and most beautiful ones, seemed to him to express emotions which were too intimate or too profound. His modesty did not allow him to imagine sharing them with audiences.
Istomin took the same approach towards Schubert’s two major trios. He played the first one in B flat major very early on, in private with Adolf and Hermann Busch in the mid-40s, and later with Schneider and Casals in the early 50s. This work was one of the favorites of the Istomin-Stern-Rose Trio in its early years and it brought them tremendous success everywhere. They played it at the White House for Kennedy and recorded it in August 1964.
The Second Trio, in E flat major, is a much more secretive and introverted work. Istomin never had the opportunity to play it with Casals, the work being generally reserved for Horszowski. He felt that in order to do proper justice to this great masterpiece, which was so profound and so difficult to express, he and his colleagues needed to let it mature. They finally decided to play it for the first time in 1968, but Istomin was still worried about not being up to the task. In August, the Trio was at the Lucerne Festival for a Beethoven program, but was still working hard on Schubert. Rubinstein was there, and Istomin asked him to listen to them playing it. He was so enthusiastic that they felt reassured. A few days later, Istomin, Stern and Rose performed it in public for the first time at the Edinburgh Festival. George Szell, usually so difficult to satisfy, was present, and rushed backstage immediately after the concert to tell them how happy he had been with their performance, adding that he had felt rejuvenated! Istomin, Stern and Rose recorded the Trio in E flat in May 1969 but rarely played it again afterwards.
Istomin played little of Schubert’s chamber music, only the Grand Duo with Stern and the Arpeggione Sonata with Casals (in private). He would have liked to add the Trout Quintet, but felt obliged to leave it to his elders, Serkin and Horszowski, for whom it was a specialty.
With Jenny Tourel (1952)
He loved Schubert’s songs, and particularly admired Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, whose Winterreise at Prades in 1955 left him with an indelible impression. He seized every opportunity to accompany lieder by Schubert: in Prades (Jenny Tourel in 1952 and David Lloyd for the complete cycle of Die schöne Müllerin in 1955) and in Puerto Rico (Eileen Farrell in 1959, Adele Addison in 1962 and Maureen Forrester in 1975 ).