Serkin talking with Van Cliburn!
Serkin’s greatest fear was that Istomin would be ruined by success! This concern was all the greater because success had come very early and the risk could not be ignored. Winning two prestigious competitions in a row, and making his debut first with the Philadelphia Orchestra and then with the New York Philharmonic in the same week would have been enough to turn anyone’s head.
If Serkin was often right in thinking that his student was not working enough, he was wrong in imagining that applause would sway his musical ambition. On the contrary, even the opposite happened. When Istomin played the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto for Serkin, his teacher complimented him (which rarely happened) and encouraged him to perform it in concert. Istomin played it with great success in Chicago in 1944, but immediately abandoned it. He intended to devote himself primarily to the greatest composers: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin and Brahms.
Even before his twentieth birthday, Istomin, who asserted that he was a musical libertine in his youthful years, had adopted his teacher’s Jansenism in terms of repertoire. When by chance he attacked a bravura piece, such as Chopin’s Polonaise “Héroïque”, he exalted its dramatic tension rather than its virtuosity, even depriving his public of fireworks.
This reluctance to succeed went much further than the rejection of gratuitous virtuosity or a demonstrative style at the keyboard. He realized very early on in his early childhood that playing the piano attracted attention, affection and admiration. It could very quickly become an exercise of seduction, fascinating indeed, but at the same time dangerous and potentially immoral. He decided to devote himself first and foremost to his musical ideal rather than to conquering the public, telling Robert Jacobson: “I don’t seek, or I no longer seek to be loved.” When John Gruen asked him in 1971 why he was not considered more as a star, he replied: “Wild public popularity… this is something I am very dubious about. I haven’t courted it in the early stage of my public life. I think you have to want to be wildly loved and wildly applauded. You have to do things to make this happen. I’ve always been repelled by that from the very start, because my tendency was always to get to the substance rather than to the appearance of music.”
Istomin knew what he would have to do in order to trigger public hysteria and media curiosity: to stage his playing, technically and emotionally, with exaggerated gestures and grimaces, program a few pieces capable of arousing thunderous applause, indulge in numerous encores, and thank the audience with hand on his heart. A good publicity agent would have helped to create an attractive image of glamour or non-conformity, on or off-stage,
Not only did Istomin refuse these compromises, which would have given him the impression of prostituting himself by making music the instrument of his success – he did the exact opposite. An example of this was his refusal to give more than two encores. He chose an introspective piece as the second encore, announcing before playing that he would be taking his leave with this piece. In so doing, he cut short the effusiveness and applause of spectators who were hoping for more encores. In the same way, he was reluctant to play an encore after a concerto, finding it almost inappropriate to occupy the stage alone in the middle of an orchestral concert.
More than a lack of charisma, which some have regretted, it was a deliberate approach which proved to be very damaging in terms of career. During the May 1971 recital mentioned above, Bernard Jacobson expressed his disappointment at the strange functioning of the American musical world in the Chicago Daily News: “If cabotinage was the benchmark measure of artistic merit, it could almost be understood that Istomin has not played with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in seven seasons, although he had once been a frequent guest, or that his recital in the Orchestra’s main hall was the first he had given here.”