Istomin’s hands in 1970
Actually, Istomin took no precautions whatsoever with his hands. His friend Doc Greene, the baseball columnist of The Detroit News, was stunned to see Istomin trying to catch a ball which had flown into the stand, or opening oysters with a hammer and screwdriver! By some miracle, none of these dangerous experiences had regrettable consequences.
Fortunately he had strong hands. They were not as big as Rachmaninoff’s or Van Cliburn’s, but the hands and wrists were very supple. Even when his back seemed to stiffen because of stage fright, his shoulders, arms and hands remained completely relaxed. One of the most obvious demonstrations of his combination of strength and relaxation was in the trills, in which he could make infinite variations of dynamics and speed. He swore that he was able to trill for hours with the fourth and fifth fingers!
Nevertheless, he had to undergo five operations for tenosynovitis, which is a painful inflammation of the finger flexor tendon and its sheath. It consisted only in opening the sheath and freeing the tendon. These relatively minor operations were scheduled during the summer. Istomin went a few days without playing and then resumed his concerts three weeks later. In 1989 he had another more complicated operation to replace a phalanx in the left thumb.
In the early 80s
He considered himself fortunate when he thought of his friends and colleagues who had been forced to interrupt their careers, in particular Fleisher and Graffman to whom he was so close. He shared their distress and in searching for an explanation, concluded that the main reason was the necessity, in the huge concert halls, to project over the orchestra, overstressing the fourth and fifth fingers of the right hand which are given the task of bringing out the top of the melody. However, these are actually the weakest and most fragile fingers! Istomin often mentioned the drama of Schumann, who tried to strengthen his fourth finger and only succeeded in paralyzing it. He counselled caution to the young pianists: performing the Rachmaninoff 2 or 3, Prokofiev 2, or Tchaikovsky 1 four nights in a row, week after week, traumatizes the hands and eventually leads to trouble. Gary Graffman and Byron Janis, among many others, were victims of such imprudence. Istomin had renounced playing this finger-breaking repertoire quite early on.