Eugene Istomin’s first studies were with Kiriena Siloti, daughter of Liszt pupil Alexander Siloti, who discovered Istomin as a child prodigy at the age of six. He then studied at Mannes College of Music in New York before entering the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia at the age of twelve where he studied with Mieczysław Horszowski and Rudolf Serkin. When he was seventeen, Istomin won the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Youth Competition and the Leventritt Award, making his debut in 1943 with both the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra playing Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor Op. 21 and Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat Op. 83.
Through his connection with Rudolf Serkin, Istomin played with the Busch Chamber Players. Adolf Busch had, in fact, been on the jury of the Leventritt Award and through working with Istomin had formed a strong musical bond with the young man. At the Prades Festival, in which Istomin first took part in 1950, Istomin formed a similar relationship with cellist Pablo Casals. At the end of his first festival he stayed on as long as possible to read through as much of the repertoire as he could with Casals. In 1952 he took over the organisation of the festival from violinist Alexander Schneider for three years, and visited Casals whenever he was able in order to make music.
Although he enjoyed playing chamber music, from the late 1940s Istomin had the career of a touring virtuoso, playing with many of the major American orchestras under such conductors as Bruno Walter, Fritz Reiner, George Szell, Leonard Bernstein, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Eugene Ormandy and Charles Munch. From the early 1950s he toured abroad, and at his London debut the twentynine-year-old Istomin played Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Ravel at the Wigmore Hall. A reviewer found that Istomin ‘…left no doubt that he possesses a superb technical equipment and has also a great fund of warm and generous musical feeling to place at the service of every composer who comes his way.’ The critic felt that Istomin treated all the music in a similar extrovert and virtuoso fashion, but concluded that ‘…Mr Istomin is an outstandingly gifted player of the “big” kind, though at the moment his exuberant imagination and ardent feeling need to be subjected to a little mental discipline.’ In the following season a performance of Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra and Josef Krips engendered praise: ‘He is a virtuoso, a veritable lion of the piano… it was a thrilling and a heartfelt conception, one that ensured a welcome for Mr Istomin to the company of pianists whom we shall be glad to hear frequently.’
In 1960 Istomin formed a piano trio with violinist Isaac Stern and cellist Leonard Rose and they had a very successful career both on stage and in the recording studio. The trio played at the Proms in London in 1968, one newspaper heading a review ‘Triumph of three great artists’, and stating that although the players ‘…did some wonderful things individually… it was their ensemble that took the breath away.’ During the 1960s Istomin appeared more often with the trio than as a soloist, and when he returned to London in 1972, it was quite an event for him to be giving a solo recital. Critic Joan Chissell wrote in The Times, ‘His playing was unalloyed delight in terms of pure sound. His liquid cantabile allowed you to forget that the piano’s mechanism is hammered. He had ravishing gradations of soft tone.’
On three occasions Istomin performed at the United Nations in New York, and also played at the White House. In 1988 he toured North America for four months, travelling with two Steinway pianos in a truck and his piano technician, giving recitals in thirty cities; he repeated this feat for eight consecutive years.
Composers including Henri Dutilleux and Ned Rorem dedicated works to Istomin and in 1956 Roger Sessions wrote a piano concerto for him. In 1969 Istomin recorded Rorem’s War Scenes and Five Songs to Poems by Walt Whitman with bass-baritone Donald Gramm which were reissued on compact disc by Phoenix in 1991.
Istomin’s first recording, made in 1945 when he was twenty, was of Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in D minor with the Busch Chamber Players. It is an assured performance of clarity and dexterity. Many recordings and live performances survive from the Prades Festival, and these have been issued by Music & Arts on compact disc; and others of the same repertoire made without an audience were recorded by Columbia and issued at the time. Many of these Columbia recordings have been issued by Sony in their Casals Edition. Istomin plays the greatest chamber music with some of the greatest chamber players of the time. His Beethoven Piano Trios Op. 1 in G major and E flat major with Casals and Alexander Schneider or Joseph Fuchs as violinist are impressively assured for one so young, and Istomin plays Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 with the great violinist Joseph Szigeti. As good as these performances are, they are from the early 1950s and in fairly poor mono sound; Istomin recorded most of the standard trio repertoire with Stern and Rose in stereo in the 1960s.
Istomin also recorded some virtuoso concertos, including Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 54 with Bruno Walter and the Columbia Symphony Orchestra in 1960, as well as Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 23 with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy. The Tchaikovsky is particularly good as Istomin does not drive the work in an attempt to ape Horowitz’s performances; he certainly gives a bravura reading, but it is controlled and structured in such a way as to make it a totally satisfying interpretation that is regal and majestic.
In the early 1990s Istomin made some recordings which were issued by Reference Recordings, including a disc of Mozart’s Piano Concertos in C major K. 467 and C minor K. 491 with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Gerard Schwarz, and a disc of three of Beethoven’s piano sonatas.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).
Role: Classical Artist