In the mid-70s Istomin’s innate ease at the piano became more fragile. He started feeling the need to find new references and another way of practicing. His desire to change was also justified by the painful sensitivity of his fingertips. He had let his nails grow longer In order to protect them, but this caused some noise on the keys which was unpleasant not only for him, but also for the audience.
The idea of playing with flatter fingers was all the more attractive as there was a fascinating model: Vladimir Horowitz. Horowitz’ playing with nearly flat fingers had stunned the musical world and left all pianists reeling. It was spectacular and seemed to be infallibly secure under all circumstances. However, none of the pianists who attempted to reproduce his technique found it satisfactory or successful. According to Jean-Bernard Pommier, Horowitz’s technique was mainly due to exceptional physical and physiological qualities. The last finger joints of his hands were endowed with incredible flexibility and strength, complemented by hypersensitivity of the Pacinian corpuscles, those nerve endings in the skin which transmit the sensations of pressure, vibration and tension. He could easily extend the finger joints upward, and their retraction, like springs, gave him the ability to play with unprecedented accentuation, power and speed. This was absolutely unique to Horowitz!
Certainly, Istomin did not wish to imitate Horowitz, but by drawing inspiration from him, he hoped that playing with flatter fingers might bring him interesting new pianistic and musical perspectives. Oddly enough, this radical change of position at the keyboard had little effect on his tone production! It only confirmed for him that all the heated debates on how to develop a beautiful sonority were meaningless. Even the dictum he had received from Kyriena Siloti that in order to have a beautiful tone, one should attack the keys with the kadushka (the pad of the fingertip), was unfounded. Sound is something which one carries within and hears internally. The hand’s mission is to translate this faithfully to the keyboard, regardless of the position adapted at the moment of playing, as long as it follows the injunctions of intelligence and the emotions of the soul.
At the piano in 1974
This evolution did not prove to be completely satisfactory. While working on Rachmaninoff’s Chopin Variations from 1976 to 1979, he came to realize the limits and dangers of a flat-finger position. His hand, and especially his finger joints, suffered the consequences of this radical change. He discovered that playing this way actually caused a loss of security (accidentally striking an adjoining key becomes impossible to remedy or conceal). As a result, he had to spend even more time in practicing how to land accurately on chords and execute large leaps, which in consequence caused him to suffer even more from stage fright. He eventually gave up playing with flat fingers and returned to a somewhat more articulated playing. .