For Istomin, sound is the pianist’s signature. There were so many pianists whose sound was impossible to identify. He was proud that his was immediately recognizable. He had become convinced that the tone was not a matter of hand position, but that it existed intrinsically in the pianist’s head and heart. As proof of this, he commented on the fact that when he radically changed his hand position on the piano in the 1970s, playing with much flatter fingers, his sound was not affected..
His ideal at the piano was to sing. From an early age, singers and string players had been his main source of inspiration. Legato was therefore an essential quality of his playing, through the quality of the attack of the note rather than through a legato itself. He could give the illusion of a perfect legato by playing completely detached! The important thing is the feeling you give to the listener.
Singing also implies the freedom of phrasing. Istomin’s phrasing was indeed free, often very personal, but he never forgot the essential rhythmic pulsation. One day when asked for a definition of rubato, he replied, “I can’t define it. There is no rubato without measure. Without pulsation, it is anarchy or chaos. There is no plasticity, waves, curvature in the phrasing without a steady beat below. The curve only appears in relation to this reference.”
Jean-Bernard Pommier, who conducted Istomin in almost all his concerto repertoire, asserts that it was not so easy to accompany him: “Of course, there was the immutable rhythmic solidity. But between the strong beats of the beginning and end of a musical phrase, Eugene often took the liberty of a vocal phrasing, whose subtle inflections could vary from one concert to another. Freedom, but with order, Casals’ famous motto! You have either to be very attentive, or to give up following him too closely because there was a risk of destabilizing the orchestra. Eugene was used to playing with great conductors and it seemed natural to him that you should follow him perfectly!’’
And the search for the right tempo? Istomin did not believe in the existence of an ideal and absolute tempo. Of course, he considered that there are limits that must not be exceeded if we do not want to lose the thread. Some of Gould’s and Richter’s extreme slowness left him stunned. He openly confessed to one of his great weaknesses – the tendency to let himself play faster and faster, due to an excess of adrenaline that encourages one to take very fast tempos and to tend to accelerate them. This was particularly the case when the hall’s acoustics did not provide feedback and encouraged him to play even faster. “One of the constants of my work has been to try, sometimes by playing like a snail, to control my desire to always accelerate.” He found it essential to resort to using the metronome from time to time, even if it was frustrating. This was necessary in order to recover a feeling of stability.
On the occasion of his 75th birthday, cellist Sharon Robinson paid tribute to Istomin in these words: “I adore your playing, you have the courage to be honest and the intelligence to be simple.’’
The article is accompanied by views of Istomin talking with Isaac Stern about interpretation, a documentary which was filmed in 1973 (two excerpts are available below).
From an interview of Eugene Istomin by Isaac Stern filmed in Jerusalem on August 20, 1973.
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