All the young pianists of Istomin’s generation (Kapell, Graffman, Janis, Katchen, and even Fleisher) built their careers more or less on the concertos by Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and Khachaturian. During the 1940s and 1950s, this repertoire was the most effective path to success. Istomin, however, refused, playing the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto only once in 1944. Despite the rapturous reception of the public and the critics, he abandoned it forever. David Oppenheim had to insist quite strongly before Istomin agreed to tackle the Rachmaninoff Second and the Tchaikovsky First and record them for Columbia (in 1956 and 1959). Despite this, he rarely played them in concert, dropping them from his repertoire as early as 1963. Much later in his career, he turned again to the Russian composers, this time not to perform blockbusters but in order to champion works which he considered unjustly neglected: the Variations on a Theme by Chopin (which he ultimately renounced playing in public) and the Fourth Concerto by Rachmaninoff, and the Medtner Sonata in G minor Opus 22.
Lucy Hickenlooper alias Olga Samaroff
What Istomin had also absolutely refused to do was to be billed as a Russian pianist. For many years, this had been a very promising argument in the United States. Olga Samaroff, the eminent American pianist, was born in Texas, but her real name was Lucy Mary Olga Agnes Hickenlooper. With the help of her Russian pseudonym, she began a very successful career in 1905, which she had to interrupt in 1925 due to an unfortunate fall. She was the first performer after Hans von Bülow to play the Beethoven 32 Sonatas in concert, and her prestige was such that she was able to install Leopold Stokowski, her husband, as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Russian performers often received a frenzied welcome during their tours in the United States: Oistrakh and Gilels in 1955, Rostropovich in 1956, the Bolshoi Ballet in 1959, Richter in 1960. These tours were organized by Sol Hurok, the great American impresario of Russian origin, who had exclusive connections with the Soviet authorities.
The biography of Sol Hurok
Hurok had been interested in Istomin ever since his success at the Leventritt Competition and his debut with the New York Philharmonic. He promised to establish him as a star, intending to capitalize on the young pianist’s Russian origins. Hurok had no hesitation in introducing Serkin on his first American tour in 1936-37 as a “sensational Russian pianist”! Istomin, however, did not wish to be labelled with this image. He turned down Hurok’s proposal, and on Serkin’s advice chose the other great American manager, Arthur Judson.
However, Istomin eventually joined Hurok in 1962, at Isaac Stern’s request, when the rise of the Trio made it preferable for its three members to have the same manager. Under the aegis of the State Department, Sol Hurok organized Istomin’s one and only tour of the USSR in 1965.