Serkin giving a lesson to a young pianist in Marlboro (mid-50s)
Serkin wanted to discipline this spoiled child, this brilliantly gifted young savage – but he did not quite know how to go about it, as he had just begun his career as a teacher. His priority was to make Istomin aware of the demands of his art, and of the performer’s duties- regardless of whether this would lead to a recurrent feeling of guilt. Serkin was obsessed with the waste that a failure of his teaching would represent, given his student’s talent. As for Istomin, he was completely unprepared to hear this moralizing speech. He began to question himself deeply and lost some of his bearings and a part of his trust. The result could have been catastrophic – but fortunately was not, thanks to their mutual efforts.
Serkin’s first requirement was absolute adherence to the text, both musically and pianistically. No freedom was allowed, not even the idea of redistributing a musical phrase between both hands to make it more “playable”. Istomin was not used to such demands and on occasion, this caused Serkin to fly into a rage. It began with the very first piece which Serkin asked him to work on, the Beethoven Sonata ”Pathétique”. After Istomin finished playing it at the lesson, Serkin berated him: “That was terrible! Didn’t you practice? How much did you practice?” Istomin replied with candor: “Well, I played through the whole piece and thought it sounded really good, so I didn’t think I needed to practice it more.” (2) Years later, Serkin used to enjoy telling this tale of innocence, but at the time he was beside himself with rage.
One of Serkin’s most spectacular rages was over the Brahms First Concerto. Istomin had heard Serkin perform it with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by John Barbirolli, and was so impressed that he decided to prepare the first movement and play it for Serkin. He had worked hard on the tricky passages, but had neglected to spend adequate time on some of the passages which were technically less demanding. Serkin brandished his chair and threatened to throw it in his face: “Aren’t you ashamed to treat such a masterpiece like this?” (1)
As soon as music was no longer the issue, Serkin was charming and paid a great deal of attention to his students, lending a sympathetic ear to their personal problems. One evening he invited two of his students, Eugene Istomin and Byron Hardin, to dinner at his home. The meal took place in a very relaxed atmosphere, but then things went awry. Istomin had brought along some recordings of Vladimir Horowitz, including the Rachmaninoff Prelude Op. 23 No. 5 recorded in Berlin in 1931. He suggested they listen to it, prefacing this with: “It’s a real disaster – it’s Horowitz playing, and there are a million wrong notes!” Serkin was infuriated – “How dare you talk like that? He’s the greatest pianist in the world!” – upon which he ejected the two impudent youngsters who thought they could poke fun at the imperfections of their glorious elders.
Vladimir Horowitz circa 1930
Istomin had naively imagined that Serkin, who seemed musically so far away from Horowitz, would go along with this game. Actually, there was mutual admiration and friendship between the two men. Serkin had supported Horowitz during the nervous breakdown which affected him between 1936 and 1938. He came almost every day in the summer of 1937, playing two pianos with him, extolling his sight reading or his performance of the fugue from Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata. As for Horowitz, he once said that if he had not been Horowitz he would have wanted to be Serkin. However, the reason for Serkin’s great anger was not due to the solidarity between great artists, but rather the unacceptable arrogance of these two apprentice pianists, whose only excuse was the unconsciousness of youth. More than fifty years later, Istomin still felt a bit ashamed.
Often asked about his years of study with Serkin, Istomin resorted to religious terms to describe them: mysticism, possession, mission, self-effacement, sacrifice, ecstasy, Calvinism… At the time, Serkin’s intention was to make his students realize the necessity of dedicating themselves body and soul to Music, for which they would have to suffer, renounce all traces of egoism, and refuse to seduce. These sacrifices were indispensable for being able to approach as closely as possible the goal of inaccessible truth and perfection. In many ways, it resembled the act of taking religious orders.