Eugene Istomin: The Concert & Solo Recordings
Past assessments of the pianist Eugene Istomin (1925-2003) have too often delivered the metaphorical verdict ‘always the bridesmaid, never the bride’. Istomin’s profile is invariably associated with the distinguished triumvirate, the Stern-Rose-Istomin Trio, and not much beyond that, at least not here in the UK. Sony Classical’s collection of ‘The Concerto and Solo Recordings’ serves to focus on a quite different side to Istomin’s art, a far more assertive player and, in Rachmaninov’s Second Concerto with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, a virtuoso very much in the Byron Janis league. The year is 1956, the mono sound clear and immediate if just a little constricted, the concerto’s opening massive in the extreme, the fugato in the finale super-fast. It seems obvious to me that, like Earl Wild a few years later, Istomin took his principal lead from the composer’s own recordings of the piece, and the result is compelling in the extreme.
Likewise a set of Chopin Nocturnes from the previous year: largely unaffected playing informed by the merest suggestion of Rubinstein’s grandeur, tone and musical poise, though with a youthful, sometimes restless edge that places it on its own patch. I loved the impetuosity and poetry of Istomin’s Schumann Concerto under Bruno Walter, possibly the best Schumann we have from the conductor and very well recorded (in stereo). On the same disc, a further collaboration with Ormandy, Chopin’s Second Concerto, with tasteful characterisation throughout and a superb accompaniment.
Beethoven’s Triple with ‘the Trio’ is famous, as handsome a performance as exists anywhere on disc (I personally prefer it to the rather less genial Oistrakh-Richter-Rostropovich-Karajan version on EMI/Warner), now coupled with Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, a reading that glistens in every rippling detail and is, at times, reminiscent of Istomin’s teacher Rudolf Serkin, specifically Serkin’s mono recording (also with Ormandy and the Philadelphia). Among a handful of first releases are two Beethoven sonatas: the little F sharp minor, Op 78, always a good test for fastidious musical judgement (Istomin passes with flying colours), and a Waldstein Sonata from 1959, amazingly dextrous playing that reminded me of Solomon. A group of Schubert Impromptus displays similar qualities and there’s a big, very spontaneous-sounding account of Schubert’s D major Sonata, D850, a work in which Schnabel excelled: as Jed Distler’s excellent notes inform us, Istomin was very familiar with Schnabel’s style of playing. Stravinsky’s Sonata is another valuable first release, a performance notable for warmth rather than the more predictable angularity.
As to the rest, Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto, again with Ormandy, is at its most poignant at the start of the second movement, where cleanly unanimous pizzicatos and a gorgeous flute solo pave the way for Istomin’s melting first entry. Ormandy was well known as an exponent of Brahms’s Second Concerto – his recordings with Serkin attest to that – and, if anything, his partnership with Istomin presents an even more vital account of the orchestral score, perhaps the best from across the pond alongside Reiner in Chicago (for Gilels). Brahms’s Handel Variations are given with considerable virtuosity though I found the last of the three Intermezzos, Op 117, a mite too fast, even given the Andante con moto direction in the score.
But for me the most delightful surprise was the first disc, a programme of Bach and Mozart that opens with a valuable supplement to the Busch Chamber Players’ Bach legacy, an elegant though dramatic account of the great D minor Keyboard Concerto, BWV1042, where the 19-year-old Istomin combines the rhythmic resilience of Serkin with the poetic delicacy of Edwin Fischer. The cadenzas are energetically played, as is the first-movement cadenza for the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, where Istomin’s performing partners are violinist Joseph Szigeti, flautist John Wummer and the Prades Festival Orchestra under Pablo Casals. At this relatively late point in his career Szigeti couldn’t always be relied upon to deliver unblemished goods, but here he does. We also have the Toccata and Fugue in E minor, BWV914, and, harking back to Serkin again, a vital performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 14 in E flat, K449, with Casals and the Perpignan Festival Orchestra, that in key respects resembles the one that Serkin made pre-war with Busch and his orchestra. Altogether a very valuable collection (which sells for about £30) and an effective prompt not so much to re-evaluate Eugene Istomin as to grant him a status he was previously denied, at least within these shores.