Born in New York City of Russian parents, Istomin was a child prodigy. His earliest public performances began at age six with his mother, and at 12 he entered the Curtis Institute, having had earlier advice from Alexander Siloti and his daughter Kyriena. He went on to study under Rudolf Serkin and also Mieczysław Horszowski.
In 1943, at the age of 17, he won the Leventritt award and the Philadelphia Youth Award. He made his debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra with Eugene Ormandy, playing a concerto by Chopin, and the New York Philharmonic conducted by Artur Rodziński playing Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2 in the same week in 1943.
The Istomin-Stern-Rose Trio he formed with Isaac Stern and Leonard Rose made many recordings, particularly of music by Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert. He won a Grammy Award in 1970 with the Istomin-Stern-Rose Trio for their recordings of Beethoven. He also was known as a soloist, performing many concerts of orchestral music, with conductors such as Eugene Ormandy, Bruno Walter, Leonard Bernstein, Fritz Reiner, George Szell and Leopold Stokowski.
He recorded extensively for Columbia (later Sony Classical), solo works and chamber music. As late as 2001, he made the world premiere recording of Paul Paray's Fantaisie for Piano and Orchestra, with the Budapest Symphony Orchestra under Jean-Bernard Pommier.
He married Marta Montañez Martinez (Marta Casals Istomin), the widow of Pablo Casals, on February 15, 1975. She is a former president of the Manhattan School of Music and former artistic director of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. He moved to Washington in 1980.
He was an avid reader and book collector and, eventually, attracted the interest of New York publishing magnate, William Jovanovich. In 1980, Istomin was hired by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers to advise the company in the publication of facsimile editions of original editions by Joseph Conrad and Thomas Hardy, among others.
In the 1980s and 1990s, he toured 30 American cities—largely in the Midwest—in a twelve-ton truck with his own Steinway pianos and piano tuner. It was the expression of a lifelong conviction that classical music belonged to the ordinary American. In this same vein, he was an ardent fan of the Detroit Tigers baseball team.
Better known in Europe than in the United States, Eugene Istomin received the French Légion d'honneur in 2001.
He died of liver cancer in 2003 at his home in Washington.
Awards and recognitions
- Eugene Istomin, Leonard Rose & Isaac Stern for Beethoven: The Complete Piano Trios (1971)
- Biography of Eugene Istomin
- Washington Post's obituary
- David Dubal interview with Eugene Istomin, WNCN-FM, 7-Oct-1983