Tuesday, April 5, 2016


The late EUGENE ISTOMIN (1925-2003) was one of the greatest and most respected pianists of our time. And now we have the news that Sony Classics has released a boxed set of vintage recordings, EUGENE ISTOMIN: THE CONCERT & SOLO RECORDINGS.

He was also a helluva nice guy. More on that presently.

We have waited for this for decades, inasmuch as most of his recordings have been out of circulation. The discs include his rarely-heard Bach and Mozart recordings; his celebrated performances of concertos by Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Schumann and Chopin; and the classic readings of solo works by Chopin (the Nocturnes are in a class by themselves), Brahms (an unsurpassed “Handel Variations”), Schubert, and Stravinsky. In particular, the Rachmaninoff Second Concerto with Eugene Ormandy has long claimed a place among the very finest readings extant.

The legendary Istomin-Stern-Rose Trio
 (Stern, left, Rose, center)

It was a great privilege to call Eugene a friend. I had been listening to his recordings since boyhood (when a Columbia Masterworks recording of his Rach 2 and his Chopin Nocturnes changed my life).

My first encounter with Istomin’s Rachmaninoff. . . at age 8! Many years later we talked about this classic performance.  Never have Istomin’s performances of the Chopin Nocturnes been surpassed.

And when we first met, I was prepared to sit at the feet of a Monument. But no, from the get-go he was just a “Friend.” A very special friend, to be sure—but an amiable guy, as it turned out, whose shop-talk included not just music, but sports, politics, paintings (he was a connoisseur collector), books, and an endless fund of anecdotes about his beloved mentor, Pablo Casals. We met many times, beginning in the 1980s. . . in New York, Washington, DC, and Kansas City. He “introduced” me to the fabled Steinway basement, invited me as a guest to join the jury of the First International William Kapell Piano Competition at Lincoln Center, appeared on my television and radio shows, and allowed me to tape our conversations (including several demonstrations in his New York apartment of Schumann at the keyboard). One particularly cherished memory was a post-concert party held in his Washington apartment with some of his friends and colleagues (including pianists John Browning, Shura Cherkassky, and Paul Badura-Skoda).

With Eugene Istomin, Washington, D.C. 1989
You can hear his voice and his performances in two of my radio series, THE WORLD OF ROBERT SCHUMANN (in which he demonstrates Schumann’s First Sonata), and in a “Tribute” episode of PIANO PORTRAITS, in which he talks about his career, his memories of Serge Rachmaninoff, his association with the famed Istomin-Stern-Rose Trio, his favorite piano (loaned him by Vladimir Horowitz), and his marriage to the remarkable Marta Casals Istomin (who graciously consented to an interview).
Istomin and Rachmaninoff (drawing by John C. Tibbetts)

Oh—I forgot to mention Eugene was a rabid baseball fan of the Detroit Tigers. He would attend Spring training, sit in the dugout, and answer to the nickname “Fingers”! I cherish a photograph he let me take of him wearing the full Tigers regalia!


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