The choice of the repertoire
An interpreter is defined first of all by the repertoire he plays. In an interviews with Robert Jacobson, Istomin explained his choice: “It’s valuable, for instance, to play a Prokofiev sonata beautifully – but it is more important to play a Beethoven sonata well because it’s more important musically. If you play Mozart beautifully, you can play the entire area up to I don’t know where, because technically it demands the kind of control that is required in the entire repertoire. For me the most difficult, the deepest music is in Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Haydn.’’
There were the classical roots essential to his life as a musician. He added their natural heirs (Schumann, Chopin and Brahms) and the master of all of them, Bach, whose unfortunately fashion then reserved him for harpsichordists. Istomin confided to Jacobson: “In actual fact I played this repertoire out of my own inner necessity. It wasn’t arrogance. I was born of the fact that I intuitively knew I had something to say about these composers.” In another interview with Myriam Soumagnac, he said: “I must believe, I must have the illusion, that a work needs me, and that I have something special, something unique to say, that I must play it. There are many works that I admire but that other pianists play very well…”
Of course, his permanent curiosity also led him to other worlds (Debussy and Ravel, in particular) and his Russian roots brought him closer at various times to Tchaikovsky, Medtner and especially Rachmaninoff.
For Istomin to embark on the initiatory journey to bring a new work into its concert repertoire, there were various scenarios that sometimes were combined: a shock created by a great pianist (Serkin playing the Beethoven Fourth Concerto or the Brahms Handel Variations, Schnabel performing the Schubert last Sonatas, Gieseking Gaspard de la Nuit); a poetic or musical evidence (Debussy’s Préludes), the suggestion of an admired and respected colleague (Rubinstein entrusting him with Szymanowski’s Symphonie Concertante, Horowitz recommending the Chopin Variations by Rachmaninoff). In the last years of his career, there was also the desire to rehabilitate unloved works or composers (the Rachmaninoff Fourth Concerto, Schumann’s Sonata Op. 11, Medtner’s Sonata in G Minor).
Many pieces have begun this journey, few have completed the process. Doubts overwhelmed him until the last moment. Already at the beginning of his career, Adolf Busch had to push him on stage to play the Mozart Concerto K. 271. The fact that a work had been announced was not always enough. Istomin was to play Mozart’s Concerto K. 503 in Prades in 1953. He had even written his own cadenza. Finally, he asked Casals to play the Beethoven Fourth Concerto instead. Mendelssohn’s First Concerto had overcome almost all obstacles, but Istomin was finally reluctant to accept the finale, which he found too superficial.
Eugene Istomin summed it up for Jacobson as follows: « The struggle is one for clarification, once a work has been absorbed. And that I do within myself over a period of time. There are phases in learning and they just take times. But the goal is clarity… That is what you have to do when you play music: make it clear. Then there is a question of eloquence. As for the formal, structural things, those one takes for granted after a while. You study a work and you bring whatever a human brings to it, your consciousness, applied to the best of your ability. But when it comes to the performance and the interpretation, the giving to someone else, it is all a matter of execution. As one more and more experience in playing a piece there is a process of etherealization that takes place – a simplification.”
For Istomin, the essential quality of an interpreter is his ability to communicate. For him, the absolute model in this field was Casals and his exceptional ability to convey to listeners the fullest range of emotions imaginable. He also admired Schnabel for his ability to clearly convey the deep meaning of a work, even when his technique proved to be deficient. He regretted the lack of conviction of today’s young performers, when he felt that, when he was young, he was sure of what he was doing, even if he was wrong!
There was always in Istomin the certainty that an artist is someone who has received a gift that is buried within himself. Its mission is to allow this gift to be expressed. For this, work and trust are enough because nature does the rest: I think that probably I have been crossing over from one period of my life into another in a natural way: ‘’You can count in decades, really, rather than in the space of a season or a given situation. Quite naturally, what has happened has evolved from very original roots.’’
Certain ferments can facilitate or intensify this realization: direct or indirect contact with great performers, the development of an artistic culture as broad as possible, a moral requirement without which art is nothing. All over his evolution, Istomin felt that it was the natural evolution from his original roots.
Istomin was convinced that cultural richness nourishes the performer’s musicality. Not directly, and indeed he rarely made analogies between the arts in his evocation of scores (only for Debussy and the French painting of his time). But by the development of sensitivity and intelligence that would reflect on the interpreter’s personality and work as an interpreter. Eugene was worried that young musicians would lock themselves exclusively in their scores, he encouraged them to open their hearts and minds by discovering other artistic fields.
For Istomin, sound is the pianist’s signature. There were so many pianists whose sounds were impossible to identify. He was proud that his was immediately recognizable. He had become convinced that the tone was not a matter of hand position, but that it was intrinsically in the pianist’s head and heart. As proof, he wanted to prove it by the fact that when he profoundly changed the position of his hands on the piano in the 1970s, playing with his fingers much more flat. Its sound was not affected.
His ideal at the piano was to sing. From an early age, singers and string players had been his main source of inspiration. Legato was therefore an essential quality of his playing, through the quality of the attack of the note rather than through a legato itself. He could give the illusion of a perfect legato by playing completely detached! The important thing is the feeling you give to the listener.
Singing also implies the freedom of phrasing. Istomin’s phrasing was indeed free, often very personal, but he never let him forget the essential rhythmic pulsation. One day when asked for a definition of rubato, he replied, “I can’t define it. There is no rubato without measure. Without pulsation, it is anarchy or chaos. There is no plasticity, waves, curvature in the phrasing without a measurement below. The curve only appears in relation to this reference.”
Jean-Bernard Pommier, who conducted Istomin in almost all of his concerto repertoire, asserts that it was not so easy to accompany him: “Of course, there was the immutable rhythmic solidity. But between the strong beats of the beginning and end of a musical phrase, Eugene often took the liberty of a vocal phrasing, whose subtle inflections could vary from one concert to another. Freedom, but with order, Casals’ famous motto! You have either to be very attentive, or to give up following him too closely because there was a risk of destabilizing the orchestra. Eugene had been used to playing with great conductors and it seemed natural to him that you should follow him perfectly!’’
The search for the right tempo? Istomin did not believe in the existence of an ideal and absolute tempo. Of course, he considered that there are limits that must not be exceeded if we do not want to lose the thread. Some of Gould’s and Richter’s extreme slowness left him stunned. He willingly confessed one of his great weaknesses, the tendency to let himself play faster and faster. An excess of adrenaline that encourages you to take very fast tempos and to tend to accelerate them. This was particularly the case when the hall’s acoustics did not provide feedback and encouraged him to play even faster. “One of the constants of my work has been to try, sometimes by playing like a snail, to control my desire to always accelerate. ” He found it essential to take over the metronome from time to time, even if it was frustrating. It was necessary to recover a feeling of stability.
On the occasion of his 75th birthday, cellist Sharon Robinson paid tribute to Istomin in these words: “I adore your playing, you have the courage to be honest and the intelligence to be simple.’’