Eugene Istomin

Acclaimed pianist who travelled relentlessly but fought shy of fame

Eugene George Istomin, pianist: born New York 26 November 1925; married 1975 Marta Casals (née Montañez); died Washington DC 10 October 2003.

For the cellist Pablo Casals Eugene Istomin was "among the world's greatest pianists". Claude Rostand, writing in Le Figaro Littéraire, narrowed it down: "one of the five greatest pianists". The conductor Jonathan Sternberg found him "one of the most musically gifted, modest musicians I have ever encountered"; although he was one of the first important American musicians, he met with "the most undeserved neglect from press and public. But I think he preferred it that way: he shied away from all forms of publicity, attention, interviews, recognition."

He was, said Sternberg, "All music".

Istomin (the stress is on the second syllable) was born in New York in 1925, to musical parents, immigrants from Russia; his father he later described as "a flyer in the Tsar's air force" who "came to work at a huge factory in Brooklyn":

As an infant I grew up listening to singing and opera stars. At four I became obsessed with a piano in the house, and picked out accompaniments to Russian songs my parents sang.

His father's former squadron leader recommended that the boy be taken to the legendary Alexander Siloti, a Liszt pupil and friend of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Stravinsky. Siloti listened to the six-year-old Eugene accompany his mother's singing and agreed to take him on as a student - but on two conditions: he was not to appear in public, and there was to be no exploitation of his talent.

Siloti was an unconventional teacher: he "started our relationship by sticking his tongue out at me and wiggling his ears". For three or four years Eugene was "a grandchild in their house" and through them he made useful musical acquaintances:

When I was seven, Kyriena [Siloti's daughter] took me to Rachmaninov's. I played the first movement of the Beethoven G major Sonata for him. He gave me the customary kiss on the forehead and then asked Kyriena: "Are you giving him technique?" She was.

Siloti introduced Istomin to Koussevitzky, Casals and Stravinsky, and would reminisce about Liszt. He wanted the boy to enjoy a normal childhood, intending to consolidate his discipline later. But Istomin's father was worried at his apparent lack of progress and moved him, now nine, to David and Clara Mannes, at the Mannes School of Music.

At 12 Istomin was accepted into the Curtis School of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied with two more giants of the piano: Rudolf Serkin and Mieczyslaw Horszowski. His rise to national prominence came in 1943 when, now 17, he won both the Leventritt and Philadelphia Orchestra Youth awards. That meant a double début: the Brahms Second Piano Concerto, first with Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra (it was broadcast) and, during the same November week, with Artur Rodzinski and the New York Philharmonic.

In July 1945, when Istomin was 19, his first solo recital in Washington (where he settled in 1980) hit the headlines. The film A Song to Remember had made Chopin a subject of popular interest, and Istomin's outdoor all-Chopin recital attracted unusual attention. In The Times Herald Glenn Dillard Gunn reported, "This American boy, Eugene Istomin, is a genius." Another critic observed that this concert outsold one by Sinatra.

Istomin first went before the microphones that year, too. Rudolf Serkin's father-in-law was the great violinist Adolf Busch, who soon co-opted Istomin into the Busch Chamber Players, as soloist in their recording of the Bach D minor Concerto.

Just as Busch, an outspoken opponent of Hitler, refused to play in Nazi Germany, so Pablo Casals swore never to put a foot in Franco's Spain. Instead, in 1949, he founded a festival pointedly just over the border, at Prades and then Perpignan. The violinist Alexander Schneider, who helped Casals run it, was impressed by Istomin's Bach recording and invited him to perform in the 1950 festival. Playing with Casals beforehand, Istomin was overwhelmed by his musicality, and a deep friendship sprang up between the young man and the old:

[Casals] personified so many of my ideals . . . Curiously enough, although his influence was very broad, it was never direct . . . taste, depths of feeling, love - big words, big things - and none of them can be learned or rehearsed. They can, however, be drawn out and encouraged by revelation.

In return, said Casals' biographer Robert Baldock, Istomin provided

a continuity of trust and honesty. He became one of a highly select number of friends who, during Casals' lifetime, had the courage - and the permission - to tell the great Maestro what they really thought.

Istomin's close relationship with Casals was both musical (it included a recital at the White House for John and Jackie Kennedy) and personal, and endured until the cellist's death in 1973; a year and a half later he married Marta, Casals' young widow.

Eugene Istomin's relentless international touring began in 1956. By his own reckoning, he would cover up to 100,000 miles when he went on one of these odysseys, performing as both orchestral soloist and recitalist around the globe. His annual tours of America - designed to bring music to places where it wasn't often heard - took in 30 towns at a time, and usually involved four months of travel; from 1988 he hit the road for eight years in succession. Istomin journeyed with two Steinway grands of his own, and a tuner.

He appeared in public over 4,000 times. His concerto partners included some of the best-known conductors of the day - Stokowski, Reiner, Solti, Leinsdorf, Munch, Mitropoulos. His recording of the Schumann Concerto with Bruno Walter betokened deep respect: Walter made only two other discs with a solo pianist. And his account of the Second Rachmaninov Concerto with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra outsold every other recording the orchestra had made.

One of classical music's most important chamber-music groups was formed in 1961, when Istomin, Isaac Stern and Leonard Rose formed the Stern-Rose-Istomin Trio; it lasted until 1984, when Rose died. Their recordings of the mainstream piano-trio repertoire became classics.

Eugene Istomin's interests went well beyond music. He was an enthusiastic painter, and built up a substantial private collection of contemporary art. His interest in philosophy and history led to a friendship with Arnold Toynbee. He was also keen on sport, especially baseball, and rooted for the Detroit Tigers.

His superb musicianship ought to have made him a household name, like Artur Rubinstein. But he didn't seek that kind of fame, as he explained to The New York Times in 1971:

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 than to the appearance of music.

Martin Anderson

Comments