In addition to the Concerto for 2 Pianos which he played only on special occasions (with Serkin, Fleisher and Pommier), his repertoire included five Mozart concertos.
The Concerto No. 14 in E flat major, K. 449 was the first concerto he performed. It was in Boston in the spring of 1943 with a youth orchestra. He subsequently played it frequently with Adolf Busch during their first tour in 1944, in alternation with the Bach Concerto BWV 1052. When he was invited to the second Prades Festival in 1951 (which actually took place in Perpignan), Istomin was also asked to play and record the Concerto K. 449 with Casals. There were five other Mozart concertos during the festival, with a dream cast: Clara Haskil in the K. 459, Myra Hess K. 271, Mieczyslaw Horszowski K. 595, Yvonne Lefébure K. 466 and Rudolf Serkin in the K. 488. The Perpignan daily newspaper L’Indépendant reported that Istomin received tremendous acclaim and was obliged to make endless curtain calls! Howard Taubman, the New York Times special correspondent, was captivated by Istomin’s “restrained, subtle and joyous reading of the piano part in the E flat Concerto.” On July 29 he wrote about Istomin: “His growth in the past few years, as proved by his share in the evenings of Beethoven trios and his work as a soloist in Mozart’s E flat Concerto K. 449 has been astonishing… he is on the way to becoming one of our major pianists.”
Istomin in the late 40s
In 1945, during his second tour with Busch, Istomin added two new concertos by Mozart: No. 12 in A major K. 414, which he played very rarely afterward, and No. 9 in E flat major, the K. 271, which he kept in his repertoire until the very end of his career and which remained his personal favourite. He was so frightened by the K. 271 that he postponed his first performance several times until Busch ultimately refused to change the program yet again and pushed him onstage! Istomin considered it to be the most difficult concerto of all, both technically and musically. In spite of its early composition, it unveils all the depths of Mozart’s imagination and soul. Istomin was especially moved by the slow movement, the achingly poignant Andantino. He was amazed by the incredible imagination of the finale, which has no equivalent in any later concerto, and by the omnipresence of the piano from beginning to end, with the feeling that the piano is Mozart himself. For Istomin, performing this concerto was a very unique combination of stress and enjoyment! He performed it under great conductors with very different personalities: George Szell, Leopold Stokowski, Alexander Schneider, Fritz Reiner, Georg Solti… but he deeply regretted that the scheduled performance and recording with Casals at the 1957 Puerto Rico Festival was cancelled, due to Casals’ heart attack. The main document of Istomin playing this concerto is a video made by French Television in 1972, with Alexander Schneider and the Chamber Orchestra of the ORTF.
Manuscript of the K. 491
Istomin performed the Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K. 491 for the first time in 1962, under Milton Katims at the Seattle World Fair. When asked by Richard Freed about this concerto, Istomin noted that “the whole of K. 491 is related to ‘wrong notes’. In the outer movements, minor scales turn major and return to minor, and in general Mozart enjoys the play of the minor second, as well as his extension at the fifth that Beethoven liked to point out – here a half-step higher, there a half step lower…” Istomin also mentioned how amazed he was by the end of the boldly dramatic first movement which “waltzes to a close.” The cadenza he played in the first movement included contributions from Claude Frank, Leopold Mannes and himself.
As for the Concerto No. 21 in C major, K. 467, Istomin tackled it in 1976 and it henceforth became the Mozart concerto he performed most often. He told Richard Freed that “a characteristic feature of this masterpiece is the use of clichés to make miracles. There is a sense of personal renewal here – something you know is going to happen, and when it does it is deliciously surprising, fresh, eternal…”. He wrote a cadenza for the first movement but later on, he played an amalgam of his own and Badura-Skoda’s. He used Lillian Kallir’s cadenza for the finale. Istomin recorded these two concertos in 1995 with Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony in only one session.
Mozart and his sister at the piano, their father listening
Istomin had often thought about other concertos. The program flyer of the 1953 Prades Festival announced that he was to play the Mozart Concerto No. 25 K. 503 under Casals. He had even written a cadenza (which Fleisher would eventually use and arrange for himself), but in the end, he did not feel ready and asked Casals to play Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto instead. Istomin also dreamed of playing the Concerto No. 23 in A Major but never tackled it, without being able to explain why. However, he ruled out playing certain concertos which, in his mind, “belonged” to pianists whom he admired and loved: No. 17 K. 451 was Kapell’s, No. 19 K. 459 and No. 20 K. 466 Haskil’s, No. 22 K. 488 Serkin’s, and No. 27 K. 595 Horszowski’s.