With Eugene Ormandy
After being out of print for many years, the 1959 recording was reissued in 1977 under the budget label Odyssey. The critics rediscovered this version, so far removed from of the standard routine performances, with great enthusiasm. One of them even entitled his review: “A Freshness that Revitalizes It”. Three years later, in September 1980, the Philadelphia Orchestra was to open the 90th Carnegie Hall season by repeating the program of the very first concert it had given there, in 1902. Eugene Ormandy was given the honor of conducting this highly publicized concert, although he had just left the musical direction of the Philadelphia Orchestra after a reign of forty-four years. As soloist in the Tchaikovsky First Concerto, Ormandy wanted Eugene Istomin! Ormandy had just heard the recent reissue of the recording the two of them had made twenty years ago, and thought it was superb. In an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer on September 24, Istomin confessed that he had hesitated: “I had not played the work for fifteen years. I was planning the Brahms B-flat Concerto this season, so when Ormandy called me, I was reluctant to agree to play Tchaikovsky. But he is a father figure to me, and he knew how to admonish and cajole. I changed my programs everywhere. I’m happy now that I did.”
For Istomin, it was a great challenge. Twenty years earlier he had attained the ultimate limits of virtuosity in this concerto, mainly by relying on his gifts and natural technical facility. From the early 1960s, he had played nearly exclusively Mozart and Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms, Chopin and Debussy. When a pianist works hard on certain repertoire, he adapts to its requirements and improves. Conversely, when a pianist forsakes a specific repertoire, he regresses and needs to appropriate it again. At fifty-five, Istomin had to make a huge effort in order to recover this kind of virtuosity and reactivate the reflexes he had forgotten over the past fifteen years, particularly in the diabolical octaves scattered throughout the first movement. He practiced incessantly, constantly questioning himself.
The performances of the concerto under Ormandy were a resounding success. Two concerts during the summer residencies of the Philadelphia Orchestra served as preparation. The reviews were already very positive. Peter Trump pointed out that Istomin remained faithful to the great romantic Russian school: “Without distorting the framework of the music, he does not hesitate to bend the rhythms suddenly for emotionally expressive effect, particularly eloquent in the great solo cadenzas. Istomin’s interaction with the various soloists of the orchestra was a delight and spoke volumes for a long and absorbing interest in ensemble playing. Ormandy too lived up to his reputation as one of the world’s great accompanists. As they brought the concerto to a climactic conclusion, the effusive applause began with the final chords and lasted until the house lights were turned up.”
Donal Henahan, chief critic of the NY Times
There was considerably more tension for the concert at Carnegie Hall. The event was widely covered by the press. Istomin had to give several interviews and all the major newspapers sent their critics. Istomin was keenly aware of the expectations and was more nervous than ever. The rush of adrenaline brought a few wrong notes and, at certain moments, some excessive pedaling in the virtuosic octaves. The reviews noticed these blemishes, but raved over his poetic rendering of a work which is so often played with a certain vulgarity. Donald Henahan wrote in The New York Times that “Mr. Istomin’s treatment of the piece was more than musical and at times exceptionally elegant.” Daniel Webster, the Philadelphia Inquirer critic, spoke of a very fresh approach and observed that “there was a lot of heroic playing, as it fits to this piece, but there were also moments in which the piano and the orchestra fit together with the delicacy and understanding of chamber musicianship.” This was a very pertinent characterization.
Istomin was happy to have played this concerto again. However, after a few performances during the autumn of 1980, one of them in Annapolis under his friend Leon Fleisher, he abandoned it for good. On the other hand, the effort he had made in order to master the Tchaikovsky Concerto again had a positive effect – it incited him to rethink how he practiced and to reconsolidate his technique. It also led him to feel that he should perform more Russian music, which he did by adding several works by Rachmaninoff and Medtner to his repertoire.