« Piano music is better played and listened to within the framework for which it was written: the concert hall. The studio recordings, despite all their qualities, cannot convey the sweat and soul of the performance ».
During his nearly sixty year career, Eugene Istomin has given more than four thousand concerts. Despite the stage fright that invaded him every time, performing concerts always remains the center of his career and life: “Piano music is best performed and heard in the context for which it was written – the concert hall. Studio recordings, for all their virtues, don’t capture the sweat, the soul of music-making.”
“Before each concert, I say to myself that this may be the last time I’ll ever play. I may die. As days and years go, it becomes more true and I gain greater tranquility inside myself.” Istomin often let himself be drawn into huge tours and concert whirlwinds. The more often he played, the less nervous he was. The worst ordeal for him was to resume after a period of inactivity, so he long gave up taking any vacation or even the shortest sabbatical period. At the end of the 1950s, he was giving nearly 150 concerts a year.
A deliberately limited repertoire
It was not only out of a desire to play only works in which he felt he had something truly personal to say that Istomin limited his repertoire in concerto and recital. It is also because of his requirement for perfection and the habit he had of playing often in public from an early age. He had started his career “the old-fashioned way”, touring extensively with Busch. He was playing three concertos alternately throughout about fifty concerts. He quickly embarked on long tours, and remained accustomed to building his programs around the main pillars of his repertoire, and to making few changes to them over the course of a season. He only added or removed a few pieces, according to the organizers’ requests or political needs (he always played works by contemporary American composers when he was on official tour sponsored by the State Department).
This permanence of the same works in his concerts naturally gave him a feeling of security. He had less to fear memory lapses or the traps as in works recently learned or rarely performed. This allowed him to give free rein to his inspiration, to devote himself solely to music, as long as the instrument did not disturb him. So he managed in the mast part of his career to play as soon as possible on his own pianos, as Horowitz and Serkin used to do. On another hand, he absolutely rejected the idea to play a recital, for him the most difficult but also the most accomplished, the most exciting form of a pianist’s activity, with the score, being shocked when he heard that Richter was doing so.
This limitation of the repertoire might cause lassitude but Istomin did not think so : “Every professional has to face the problem of boredom if he plays the same piece over and over. I really believe that I play a concerto better the seventh or eighth time in one season than the first.” Istomin never had the feeling of a routine, continually deepening his understanding, always discovering something new. In an interview with Bruce Duffie, John Browning reported a Serkin confidence: “I have been playing this piece for forty years and it is only now that I see where the top of the phrase is! And you think, ‘How deaf can you get?’ I think things get easier when you become less self-centered. This brings us directly to the message.” A confidence that Istomin could certainly have shared.
It is nevertheless true that this limited repertoire was detrimental to his career. His recital program was not renewed often enough to encourage the organizers to invite him again. As for the concertos, he offered either some of the most famous concertos or works that no orchestra wanted (Kirchner, Szymanowski, Rachmaninoff 4).
A musician is not an actor!
In a 1968 interview with John Garabedian, Eugene Istomin said: “A pianist must be an actor, an architect, an acrobat, a preacher, and a poet.” However, he gradually renounced the term actor, or at least considered him rather as a reciter who would only use his voice. The complete message had to come from the music itself.
At the beginning of his career, Istomin had a spectacular playing, as can be seen from the filming of Schumann’s Concerto at the Casals Festival in Puerto Rico in 1959. No cabotage in his attitude, but his face was expressive and his gestures very communicative. Over the years, he would tend towards greater and greater sobriety. His ideal had become Rachmaninoff’s austerity. “His face looked like a Buddhist mask. At the keyboard, he didn’t move. I remember his playing, how he looked when he did that”. “He was still absolutely impassive, like Jascha Heifetz. The fire, the terrific passion come out of the sound and not of his face! It was all happening under the surface. Nowadays the players visualize how they feel, Rachmaninoff would be horrified.”
This refusal of demonstrative attitudes and this desire to be entirely devoted to pure musical expression was particularly noticeable from the 1970s onwards. This struck all Chicago critics at his May 1971 recital. Thomas Willis stated in the Chicago Tribune that Istomin was “a welcome antidote to the histrionics that affect so many of the fire and brimstone technicians who surround him.” In an interview with Robert Jacobson, he describes himself as an heir to the virtuosos of the nineteenth century: “Basically, my feelings about music are what are described as romantic. I’m an intellectual, not an exhibitionist in the superficial sense of the word… For me, the glamour and patina is in the actual making of the music, not in the externals. In that sense, I think that I like to practice this deception, because what I do musically is intended to be extremely dramatic, emotional, involved and passionate – yet the exterior I like to give is that the person playing is simply a vessel for this thing to happen, not an actor. The acting is taking place through the notes.”
The refusal of easy success
Istomin and Serkin in the late 1940s
That Istomin would be perverted by success was Serkin’s great fear! This concern was all the greater because this success had come very early and the risk was not to be neglected. Winning two prestigious competitions in a row, making his debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra and then with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in the same week was enough to turn heads.
If Serkin was often right in thinking that his student was not working enough, he was wrong in imagining that applause would override his musical ambition. It was even the opposite that 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 libertine of music in his youth 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 if it might disappoint fireworks lovers.
This reluctance to succeed went much further than the rejection of gratuitous virtuosity or a demonstrative attitude to the keyboard. He knew 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 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 more considered 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 to the appearance of music.”
Istomin knew what he would have to do for triggering public hysteria and media curiosity: to stage his playing, technically and emotionally, with great gestures and faces, to program a few pieces able to rise thunderous applause, to indulge in numerous encores, to thank the audience with a hand on his heart. A good press service would have helped to build an attractive image, on or off stage, in glamour or in non-conformity.
Not only did Istomin refuse these compromises, which would almost give him the impression of prostituting himself and making music the instrument of his success, but he exactly did the opposite. For example, he quite never gave more than two encores. He chose a very interiorized piece as the second encore, announcing before playing that it was with this piece that he was taking leave. Thus he cut short the effusions, the applause of spectators looking for possible other 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, very damaging in terms of career. During the May 1971 recital mentioned above, Bernard Jacobson expressed his disappointment in the Chicago Daily News at the strange functioning of the American musical world: “If cabotinage was the benchmark measure of artistic merit, it could almost be understood that Istomin had 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. »
Performing, a combination of happiness and suffering!t
For Istomin, giving concerts was a matter of course. From a very young age, he knew that this would be his life, his almost divine mission. Of course, the idealized vision of the easy life of a virtuoso flying without concern for triumphs into triumphs, quickly came up against reality. He discovered that music was not only an art, but also a business, and that the career depended a lot on critics. In both these areas, artistic competence and honesty were rarely guaranteed. Istomin also became aware of his responsibility towards the public, other musicians and, even more so, composers. “The prospect of the perfect performance leads me on. (…) The work itself is very important to humanity. One has a responsibility as a person who has been given – through no fault of his own – a gift. To walk away from that while I still have the capacity for growth – that would be the greatest failure”. This sense of responsibility generates stage fright, a suffering that is almost impossible to get rid of.
It was not the success Istomin was looking for when performing, he was even afraid of having a too great success, that only the composer would deserve! What he wanted was sharing the musical truth: “My first ambition is to speak, to communicate the truth, as well as I can, in the music I am playing. After a performance that’s really been what I wanted it to be, I feel a wonderful light sense of having spent myself, having fulfilled myself. The moment of truth is the doing.“
Mozart, Concerto No. 21 in C major K. 467, first movement. New Phiharmonic Orchestra of Radio France. Emmanuel Krivine. June 1977
Brahms. Quartet for piano and strings No. 2 in C minor, the first two movements. Eugene Istomin, piano. Members of the Budapest Quartet. Library of Congress 1958
Mendelssohn. Romance without words op. 62 n° 1. Concert at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. The bis with which Euhene Istomin liked to say goodbye to his listeners….