In 1956, Eugene Istomin and Leon Fleisher were both invited to perform in an important all-Mozart concert with the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Enrique Jorda, who was not exactly well-known as a great Mozartian. It fell to Istomin to play the Concerto No. 9 K. 271 and Fleisher the Concerto No. 25 K. 503, before they joined forces for the Concerto for Two Pianos K. 365. During the rehearsal, Fleisher looked for Istomin’s eyes as his cue to come in, but as the score was up on the music rack, all he could see were two thick, frowning eyebrows shaped like great circumflexed Gothic arches. He was so taken aback and fascinated that he forgot to come in. Istomin scowled even more and took up the theme one octave above, followed by one below, without the conductor even noticing. It was a moment of complicity and fun. Fortunately, they regained their seriousness for the concerts! The Concerto No. 25 remained Fleisher’s favorite Mozart concerto, of which he gave many superb performances as well as a recording with Szell. It is worth noting that in the cadenza of the first movement, Fleisher adopted, with some modifications of his own, the cadenza which Istomin had written, but never used, since he had abandoned the idea of performing this concerto in public.
In September 1962, Fleisher and Istomin joined Gary Graffman and William Masselos for the inaugural concerts of the Avery Fischer Hall at Lincoln Center. They played the little Bach Concerto for 4 Keyboards BWV 1065 with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Bernstein.
Istomin was deeply affected by the tragedy which had successively struck down Fleisher and Graffman, two of his closest friends: the loss of the ability to use their right hand, which brought into question their entire lives. In some way, he felt a sense of guilt that he was able to continue playing and performing. Fleisher’s reconversion into a left-handed pianist, conductor and great pedagogue amazed him. Istomin thought that he would have given up all professional musical activity and turned to other fields if something like this had ever happened to him. In 1978 and 1980, Istomin was delighted to come and play with the Annapolis Symphony under Fleisher, who was at that time its music director. In January 1997, he was in Paris when Fleisher played the Brahms Concerto No. 1 with Giulini and the Orchestre de Paris, which he had performed again for the first time a few months earlier in San Francisco. Hearing Fleisher perform the most emblematic work of his repertoire once more – a work which he had despaired of ever playing again- was a moment of intense emotion for Istomin, yet at the same time one of deep anguish, as Fleisher’s right hand often struggled to get through the difficult passages. Istomin could not bring himself to greet his friend backstage after the concert.
In 2000, Fleisher came and performed for Istomin’s 75th anniversary. The following year, he participated in the Great Conversations initiated by Istomin at the Library of Congress. It was their ultimate collaboration, with a complicity which had remained intact over the years.