Recital at Carnegie Hall in December 1990
At the turn of the 1990s, Istomin was playing an all-Beethoven program everywhere: the Fantasy in G minor Op. 77, Moonlight Sonata Op. 27 No. 2, Sonata Op. 110, and the Waldstein Sonata. He presented it in these terms.
“Beethoven was fond of his Fantasy in G minor and played it often, but strangely enough, it remains unloved. Some say that it’s ‘bad’ Beethoven, but I don’t think so. In it, we find a lot of his own personality – his fierce temperament, and his great sense of humor, which was not always very refined. It’s like a joke built on scales! First of all, there is a kind of long phrase that is constantly interrupted by scales going up and down. There are collages of ideas and then, in the middle, the arrival of a theme very close to the principal theme of the slow movement of the Emperor Concerto (which dates from the same period), followed by seven variations. At the end, the scales come back. They go down and up again, and finally meet each other – and this ends the work humorously and in a good mood. It’s unique! This fantasy may look clumsy, but it is very endearing. I start the program with it because it unleashes the adrenaline. It’s a kind of catharsis of energy. Then you feel calmer and you can play more introverted music. I like to create a very strong contrast after this Fantasy, by playing immediately afterwards Beethoven’s most atmospheric work, the Moonlight Sonata.
Manuscript of the Sonata Opus 110
The Sonata Opus 110 further confirms the positive spirit of this great genius who has gone through suffering and resignation. In the first movement there is a tenderness and an affectionate sweetness which is almost unique in all his work. Then there is the drama, the infinitely painful voice of the slow movement and, finally, the rebirth – the phoenix reborn from the ashes and the spirit which eventually triumphs, perhaps even after death. As in all of Beethoven’s late works, the intellectual and mathematical construction plays a prominent role. The subject of the fugue is exactly the same as the theme of the first movement, and the same intervals can be found in the inverted subject of the second fugue which ends the sonata. This unity, this immense arch of construction is so amazing, so incredible. The slow movement, which precedes the first fugue, reminds me of some passages from the St Matthew Passion, or of one of the most poignant works by Mozart, the third movement of the Quintet in G minor K. 516, with the same downward course of the minor scale.
I have played the Sonata No. 21, the ‘Waldstein’ since my very first recital in New York in 1944. Ever since then, I have played it hundreds of times. I hope I have improved. It can touch everyone and has a direct impact on the public. It is one of Beethoven’s greatest achievements. It is a very positive work, which stands for, as he often does, the triumph of the mind and of human will. It is probably one of his works which most impetuously affirms this conviction. That is why it is in C major. There are so many repeated notes, just like an obsession, exactly as in the Fifth Symphony. He is stating to us his absolute conviction that reason, goodwill, and generosity are genuine qualities of humanity, and that they help to overcome adversity. He affirms his faith that the oppressed will triumph and free themselves, like in Fidelio. We are induced to believe in the victory of the human spirit, even if history and the present time constantly prove that this is not true.”
“I had listened to Serkin playing the Sonata No. 24 in F sharp major Opus 78 in a recital and I worked on it with him. I put it sometimes in my programs, but I soon felt that this sonata was too intimate to be performed in big halls. It seems as though Beethoven composed this only for himself and his dedicatee, Therese von Brunswick. There is such tenderness in the first movement! I like to quote Hans von Bülow about its first bars: ‘Beethoven would be immortal even if he had written only these four bars’. As for the final, it is certainly short, but it is monstrously difficult!”
In 1959 and 1960, Istomin recorded two complete sonatas for Columbia (No. 21 and No. 24) and the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata. These recordings were released only in 2015 by Sony. In 1991, when he was currently playing his all-Beethoven recitals, he recorded the Sonatas 14, 21 and 31, which were published by Reference Recordings in 1996.