When Istomin knew that he was invited to participate in the Prades Festival to celebrate the two-hundredth anniversary of Bach’s death, he was both happy and proud, but also a little skeptical. Of course, Casals was a great man and a gigantic musician, and Istomin considered a great honor to be around him. But what cellist was he now? Casals had not played in public for a very long time and he was going to be seventy-four years old. Istomin believed then in instrumental progress. Jascha Heifetz played better than Kreisler and all the violinists who had preceded him. For the cello, he thought that Feuermann, who died tragically in 1942 at the age of 39, had probably surpassed his predecessors, including Casals. The doubt was quickly dispelled!
For Istomin, the meeting with Casals was undoubtedly the most important of his life as a musician and as a man. The articles in this chapter tell the story of their relationships and collaborations in detail. This introduction is more intended to focus on their personal bonds and the portrait of Casals as a musician that Istomin had the opportunity to present in various interviews.
Casals, who had never had a child, loved him as a son, as a grandson. There was not only an immense affection between them, but also a frankness, a freedom of tone, that Casals had with no one else and that refreshed him from the excessive deference that so many people showed him. Istomin did not hesitate to tease him. In his letters, he never addressed him with “Dear Master” which was the use, nearly the rule, but wrote “Dear Pablo” or even “Dear old boy”. Beyond his immense respect, Istomin was also the only one who once confronted Casals and engaged in a violent dispute. It happened during the 1955 Prades Festival. Of course, they reconciled immediately!
Like the filial relationship they had in the daily life, Istomin sometimes tried to shake up Casals in music. The others, including Serkin, were too respectful to dare it. Istomin could push Casals to take a faster tempo than he would have intended. Istomin was not only following him, “accompanying’’ him but also soliciting him. It was especially for Brahms that their ideas might diverge. Casals found that Brahms was almost always played too fast. Istomin would later admit that Casals was right!
Casals made a decisive contribution to clarifying Istomin’s musical ambition: to be a “musician virtuoso ” who would associate the perfection of Heifetz and Toscanini and the sensitivity of Casals. Istomin wished to take up the challenge of bringing together in him qualities that seem difficult, if not impossible, to coexist in one and the same musician.
The richness of their exchanges went far beyond the musical scope. Politically and philosophically, they felt very close, both attached to the same ideals of freedom and justice, both convinced that they were men before they were musicians.
Istomin was always totally available for Casals. He devoted himself body and soul to the organization of the Prades Festivals from 1953 to 1955, even making fund raising or donating number of his fees. He was instrumental in many Casals’ approaches in the United States, either with the government (notably with President Truman in 1950) or with the press (ensuring that an article written by Casals and entitled “I Have Not Changed My Mind’’ was published in Saturday Review in 1953). He also acted as a conduit in the negotiations with Columbia. During the difficult period of Mrs. Capdevila’s illness and death in late 1954 and early 1955, Istomin was a crucial support for Casals, who was exhausted and discouraged, both musically and politically.
Istomin talks about Casals as a musician
“His quality of communication is the most intensively developed that I have experienced. He has the extraordinary ability to extrovert something, yet with such depth and with such a profundity of feeling and a breadth that is unique among instrumentalist I’ve heard. It’s through a deep natural intelligence, not necessary an intellectual development, but the profoundest kind of natural intuition and general intelligence. Hearing him play a few times, I felt he reaches the farthest limits of the art of interpretation. The greatest heights of musical experience were given to me by Casals. It was through those experiences that I realized what it is all about. “
‘’I learned inadvertently, involuntarily by making music with him.’’
“After Busch, I had the feeling once again that I was co-opted, that I was welcomed into the small circle of the ‘chosen’, of the great musicians, that I only had to work and develop the gifts that nature had given me. It was a great privilege, but also a great responsibility! »
“He didn’t give me any advice about my playing. He liked my playing, full stop. He did not find it necessary to make any comments to me. I was the one who was making observations to him: ‘ Why are you doing this rubato here?’ What an incredible cheek!?”
« Casals, unlike Toscanini, has not concerned himself with attempting to prove himself still young and invincible. He probes deep below the current strife in the world. He is concerned only in primary causes. His playing for example, is not such a memorable technical experience, but an exposition of the sum total of all music.”
‘’Contrary to what one might think, when you play with Casals, a trio, quintet or sonata, it is not at all professorial. He is just an artist who participates in the interpretation of the work, just like you. Of course, it’s something special to play with him, but he makes few if any comments.’’
“When he conducts the festival orchestra, that is another matter. No one could call Casals a great conductor, but he is certainly a great leader. He is continually stopping the rehearsal to comment on the music. He is humble before the master who composed the work at hand. As he himself expressed it, ‘We are going to make some music here. All of us can learn together’. Believe me, all of us do. And a great deal of it comes from him.’’
Istomin talks of Casals’ Prelude for piano
“Casals played it himself sometimes, for close friends. He played it for me, and I also remember a day when he played it in Prades, at home, for Miecio, Sasha, Serkin and me. He said that it was a very modest work, his homage to great composers. In fact, this prelude is very touching, a little anachronistic of course, but Casals was a 19th century man, he was almost forty years old in 1914. It’s very personal, a little Catalan, a little Fauréan…
I learned it for the recital I gave in Prades in 1965. I hadn’t been there in ten years. Then I took it up again in 1991 for the concert in tribute to Mieczyslaw Horszowski in Philadelphia. We celebrated of the 50th anniversary of his presence at the Curtis, and his 100th birthday was approaching. Miecio had asked his former students (including Seymour Lipkin, Richard Goode and Peter Serkin) to play something unusual. I then played this Prelude very regularly in my recitals for several years, always with a lot of emotion. »