"There is no other festival in the world quite like it," says Eugene Istomin -- a little bit like a proud parent but also with a tinge of regret. The world-famous pianist is talking about the University of Maryland Piano Festival, now gathering momentum on the College Park campus, which he is directing for his second -- and, it develops, last year.

Istomin is certainly not leaving the festival because he lacks enthusiasm for it. Potentially, he says, "it is the most important piano seminar in the world," and he feels proud of having nudged it toward its full potential. But ultimately, his business is playing the piano, not administering festivals. And lately, as he proceeds into his sixties (he will be 65 on Nov. 26, 1990), Istomin has been feeling the call of the road, mingled with nostalgia for the kind of concerts he used to give when he was a brilliant teen-ager.

The work of directing an event like the Maryland festival is "almost constant," Istomin says. "You have to be available for all sorts of decisions at all times during the year." He was able to do it while touring regularly in major American and European cities -- indeed, he used his foreign tours to contact some of the European artists who are now giving concerts, lectures and master classes and acting as judges in the festival's William Kapell Competition. But his next project will increase his workload to the point where something has to give. And that something is the University of Maryland Piano Festival.

Istomin's eyes light up and his normally lively voice becomes more animated when he talks about the project he plans to begin in January: a barnstorming tour of America that will include small towns as well as big cities.

This was the standard method of touring when he began to play in public, 40-odd years ago. With the arrival of jet travel, the logistics of a musical tour have changed drastically. "There was a time when Jascha Heifetz, while traveling by train between Boston and Buffalo, would stop off and play at one or two places along the way," Istomin says. "Nowadays, one doesn't do that any more." In these times, Istomin, like other musicians, has been flying over small towns where he used to play. And lately he has been missing them, wondering whether there is still an audience there. He plans to find out in the next two seasons.

"I've been hearing that the recital business is dead," he says, "and that only household names like Pavarotti can attract audiences and there's no place to play. Managers have been telling me that for the last 25 years."

He believes that the lack of small-town bookings is one of the serious problems facing young pianists today. When he started his career "as a kid of 17," he recalls, "I learned how to play the piano in public in the small places. I learned by making mistakes in small places, going to these little community concerts and I found that there were a lot of people in small towns who cared very much about music. I'm told that these places dried up and disappeared -- that serious, high-standard attractions don't exist anymore in small communities. I told my management to go ahead and book the small places. If they don't have the same budget, if they have less money than the big places, I will play for what they can pay, as long as it's reasonable."

For his first expedition, which will begin next January in Florida and work its way slowly up through Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia to Washington, Istomin is setting up a three-man expeditionary force: himself, a piano technician and a driver for a truck, adapted to carry two pianos, that General Motors plans to lend him. With all that, Istomin hopes "that the conditions for these concerts will be optimum; the piano -- and, hopefully, the pianist -- will be in top shape."

"We may find out that the problem isn't the recital business; it's the management business that isn't doing very well," he says.

After his first tour, next January through May, he will embark on a second, venturing west of the Mississippi, to begin in October 1988 and end in Carnegie Hall in February 1989. He will also continue to tour Europe when time permits -- and that doesn't leave much free time for directing a festival.

Why now? "I'd better grab the moment," Istomin thinks, "while I have the stamina and I'm still willing to challenge myself for a period of two seasons. After that, I can do whatever I want. When I did this as a young man, there was a lot of gnashing of teeth and 'gosh, I've got to get ahead' and 'am I going to get to the position that everyone expects of me.' Now it's joyful; I have a good feeling about it. But I also feel I better get it right because there ain't that much time left now."

The opportunity to play in small towns, away from the prying eyes of predatory critics, gives performers a chance and an incentive to take risks that might be avoided under large, bright spotlights.

"You can't live, you can't make music, you can't do anything worthwhile unless you take risks and unless you commit yourself," Istomin says. "If you commit yourself, you can slip on a banana peel; that's part of it. Chopin slipped on banana peels; Beethoven made mistakes; Rachmaninoff made mistakes. The greatest artists of all time made mistakes. But young people today can't make mistakes; if they play a wrong note in a Chopin e'tude, they're thrown out of the competition. So, I do a lot of playing live, making mistakes but playing not so badly, and having people say, 'Gee, I enjoyed that even more than listening to my perfect recording at home.' "

Meanwhile, at Maryland, the competition is heating up; the public concerts have begun with some of the world's greatest pianists giving recitals, lectures and master classes. The evening recitals, open to the public, will include Shura Cherkassky tonight and Ivan Moravec, Youri Egorov, John Browning, Nikita Magaloff and Paul Badura-Skoda through the week. On Saturday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, the William Kapell Competition will have its last round with the three finalists playing concertos and Stanislaw Skrowaczewski conducting the National Symphony.

Istomin's voice becomes as enthusiastic talking about the festival as it does when he discusses his return to barnstorming:

"It is a symposium on the piano where major concert pianists and major pedagogues meet, exchange ideas and speak about the piano with advanced students and artists. There is no other festival that combines that with a series of lecture-recitals on sometimes esoteric masterpieces along with a series of major concerts involving great pianists. Add to that a world-class competition for the young, and there is no other place that has all this."

As his replacement, he says, he has already suggested that the festival should get another world-class pianist. "Since an extremely high level of pianism is the goal," he says, "it seems logical to me that a concert artist should run such an event. I have recommended that. We're talking about the piano; we want to have the best pianists involved and hope that some of it will rub off on everybody else and make them better pianists."