More dignity than dazzle at Istomin performance

April 01, 1994|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,Special to The Sun

It was the "desert island disc" of my childhood: Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto performed with virtuosic fire by pianist Eugene Istomin, conductor Eugene Ormandy -- then at the peak of his powers -- and Ormandy's fabulous Philadelphians, the most sumptuous-sounding band of 'em all.

I wore the grooves on that LP to dust.

It was with great anticipation, then, that I attended Eugene Istomin's recital at St. John's College last Sunday afternoon, for there's no friend like an old friend.

Now 68, Istomin is no longer the fire-breather who mesmerized me in my boyhood. In his Key Auditorium program of Bach, Mozart, Casals, Medtner and Beethoven, he exuded a sense of having "done it all" in his career and of wanting to play the piano in a deeply personal, unassuming way devoid of flash, -- and crash.

Istomin's musical affect seems more attuned to his old collegial role as pianist in the legendary Istomin-Stern-Rose trio than to the mind-set of a conqueror out to subdue all with his impassioned playing.

What did such an approach mean for the music? There was a mellifluous, rather laid-back E minor Toccata of Bach, and lucid, gently etched Mozart G major Sonata, K. 283, that, although satisfying, was not the last word in songful exhilaration.

But the G minor Sonata of Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951) received a cultivated, scrupulously musical reading that was both elegant and viscerally exciting.

The Russian composer's 1912 sonata benefited immensely from Istomin's measured approach, because Medtner's piano music is more classically scaled than the go-for-the-jugular Russian romanticism of that period.

No pyrotechnics for Beethoven either, as the "Waldstein" Sonata -- one of the most symphonic of the Beethoven canon -- came off with admirable dignity and poise. The opening Allegro was loaded with snap (if it isn't, dial 911), but the Adagio and concluding Allegretto were memorable for the unhurried, magisterial manner in which they unfolded.

When I was a kid, Istomin dazzled me with his ardor. Now, at 40-something, I find myself moved by the balanced wisdom of his playing. Both, I think, are pearls of great price.

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