“I read, I live, I eat in French. France is my favorite country in the world.” This was stated by Eugene Istomin in 1991. On another occasion, he replied to a journalist that his homeland was not Russia, but America and that, if there was to be a second one, it would be France.
This love story began in 1935, when he was ten years old and read The Three Musketeers. It is certainly no coincidence that the Parisian hotel that had his preference was the Hôtel de la Trémoille, named after a hero of Alexandre Dumas’ novel. He was always cordially received there, with even the privilege of having a piano installed in his room.
Moreover, he had a little French blood in him! He was a descendant of a Napoleonic army officer who had chosen to stay in Russia for love. He humorously recounted it in his speech at the reception of the Legion of Honor, a distinction he received with great emotion on October 24, 2000, at the Théâtre du Châtelet. It was exactly fifty years after his debut in Paris in this very hall, with the Orchestre des Concerts Colonne conducted by Paul Paray.
Eugene Istomin had learned French with Kyriena Siloti, but he had little opportunity to speak it. It was mainly to immerse himself in French culture and language that he took a six-month sabbatical in the spring of 1948. As soon as he arrived, he rushed to the Théâtre Marigny to see Kafka’s The Trial adapted by André Gide and played by the Renaud-Barrault Company. Three months after his arrival, his progress was such that he could read Proust’s La Recherche du temps perdu, the nec plus ultra (the ultimate example of its kind) as he liked to say.
In 1950, Istomin returned to France to give concerts at Paray’s invitation, performing Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto in Paris, Lyons, Vichy and Marseilles. Then he participated in the Prades Festival and spent all summer near Casals.
From then on, there was not a single year in which he did not spend a moment in France. Often, even if he didn’t have concerts there, he would come to Paris for a few days to overcome the jet lag.
Marta and Eugene Istomin at the time of their marriage
The pleasure of being in Paris could be as simple as walking through the streets, or even taking the subway! It was of course the food and wine, the way of life, the language. He was delighted by using the right word, the most idiomatic term, and handling slang!
France was also linked to important events for him. It was in Paris that he and Marta really declared their love and decided to get married. The first person to whom they announced it was none other than Alexander Schneider, who was then in his house in Provence. Istomin was keen to introduce Marta to French literature, guiding her readings, sharing his passions with her. It was in France that they spent the longest holiday they had ever allowed themselves, in the summer of 1987, without any concerts or even playing the piano! After Istomin participated in the jury of the Santander Competition, they rented a car and travelled peacefully through the Southwest of France, stopping at leisure to admire a landscape, visit a church or a small provincial museum.
They even made a detour to discover the Cathar castles, Istomin telling Marta the story of the crusades against the Albigensians. He had carefully prepared the itinerary and the stages. He wished to live the real French life, not that of palaces and great restaurants, but that of small charming hotels, inns and bistros. They went up the Rhone Valley and remained for a few days in Burgundy for wine and Romanesque churches. There they joined a couple of baseball friends with whom they spent three days on a barge. That was enough for Istomin, whose patience was put through the mill. He found that the barge was going so slowly that, most of the time he preferred to walk on the towpath!
Marta and Eugene Istomin made a similar journey in June 2001, this time from Barcelona where they had inaugurated the renovated Casals Museum. Accompanied by Myriam “Gury” Montanez, Marta’s young niece, they drove quietly to Paris, stopping in Prades, Perpignan, and in all the places that had been important for them. It was a sweet journey, but full of nostalgia.
Istomin had been so upset by the election of presidents Reagan and G. W. Busch that he thought seriously of leaving America, but unlike his friend Pierre Salinger, who came to settle in Provence and remained there until his death, he finally desisted of that idea.