Kapell Returns

William Kapell (Wikimedia/Public Domain)

The world makes a big deal out of musicians who die young. There are reasons for this, of course: People think of potential unfulfilled; and the departed musicians are frozen in time, forever young. In fact, there’s a song, “Forever Young,” isn’t there?

The pop world has suffered its losses — particularly as a result of drugs. And the classical world has suffered losses, too. I will cite early deaths — major ones — in the 20th century:

Lili Boulanger, the French composer (sister of Nadia), dead at 24 (from disease). Dinu Lipatti, the Romanian pianist, dead at 33 (also disease). Guido Cantelli, the Italian conductor, 36 (plane crash). Dennis Brain, the British French-horn player, also 36 (car crash). Fritz Wun­derlich, the German tenor, 35 (fell down the stairs).

Jacqueline du Pré, the British cellist, died at 42, but MS had forced her to stop playing at 28.

Forgive a macabre listing. And that’s to say nothing of, for example, Schubert, who was given four fewer years even than Mozart, who had 35.

William Kapell had 31 (like Schubert, in fact). This American pianist was born in 1922 and died in 1953. He was coming home from an Australian tour; the plane in which he was flying crashed just short of San Francisco. Every piano student — certainly every American student — is taught to revere “Willy” Kapell. At least that used to be the case. And that reverence was not misplaced.

People can see for themselves — hear for themselves — in a new two-CD set. It comes from RCA Red Seal, and it’s called William Kapell Rediscovered: The Australian Broadcasts. Yes, these are re­cordings from that final tour. And how they came to light is an interesting tale.

But first, more about Kapell.

He was a New Yorker, and he had a number of mentors — although he was so difficult, so mercurial, his relations with those people were often stormy. Among his teachers was Olga Samaroff, née Lucy Hickenlooper in Texas. She married Leopold Stokowski, another master self-reinventor. Kapell also worked with Schnabel and Rubinstein.

He was a dedicated student, an incessant learner — a fanatical practicer (eight hours a day, even when he had a performance). He was a virtuoso, and a stupendous one. But he was also a musician of keen intel­ligence and sensitivity. And he always strove to know a composer’s intentions, obeying them.

He is often called a typical American pianist, and maybe even the quintessential one. Now, what does that mean? Na­tionality in music-making is difficult to discuss, but I think it means this: He was brash, daring, “new.” He was virile, bold, unbounded. “Athletic” is a word we always apply to his playing.

And he was an amalgam of the various “schools” around the world: the French, the Russian, the German. All of these traditions flowed through his musical blood.

Though not given much time, he was famous, almost a matinée idol, and he made several acclaimed records. One was of the Khachaturian Concerto (a piece now out of the repertoire altogether). Another was of Beethoven’s Concerto in B flat. Almost all of Kapell’s recordings were released in a box set on RCA Red Seal ten years ago.

And now there are these Australian recordings. What happened? A man in Melbourne named Roy Preston was music-mad. He amassed over 10,000 recordings. (I wrote about this type in the December 31, 2007, National Review: “Beautiful Collecting.”) When Kapell came to Australia, Preston recorded the radio broadcasts on his home machine, using acetate discs.

He later bequeathed his collection to a friend. And the friend decided to turn the Kapell recordings over to the pianist’s family in America. He found a grandson on the Internet — and e-mailed him on October 29, 2003. Strangely enough, this was 50 years to the day after Willy Ka­pell’s death.

And now, five years later, we have William Kapell Rediscovered. The sound is crackly and otherwise flawed. But RCA engineer Jon Samuels has done his usual top-notch job: and Kapell is very much there. Vividly present.

There is a variety of music on these discs, from Bach to Prokofiev. (Prokofiev had died earlier in the year — on March 5, 1953, the same day as Stalin.) There is some stellar playing and some weak playing. To address the latter first:

Kapell plays Mozart’s Sonata in B flat, K. 570, and he is not especially natural in it. He seems a foreigner in Mozart country. In Debussy’s Suite bergamasque — that’s where we get “Clair de lune” — Kapell is sometimes heavy and unnuanced. And the Precipitato of Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7 is maybe a little ordinary.

But so what? These discs contain some of the most wondrous and phenomenal piano playing you will ever hear. Rach­maninoff’s D-minor concerto is a knockout, not only virtuosic but totally musical. There is exceptional beauty amid the torrents of notes. Chopin’s Barcarolle is perfectly noble — Rubinstein’s influence is obvious (whether Kapell would say so or not).

But the pièce de résistance is Mus­sorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition: loaded with character, with judgment, with all the “intangibles” that go into musical performance. This outing with Pictures is almost unbelievably good. It is genius playing, really.

I wish to relate a personal story. Several years ago, my sister and her family moved to little Greenport, N.Y., way out on the North Fork of Long Island. She told me that her realtor was an interesting man named Dave Kapell — who was also mayor and an antiques dealer. I asked her to spell the name, and she did. It is an unusual spelling. “Any relation to Willy?” I asked. “I’ll check,” she said. She did — son.

There is a kind of cult of Kapell, as there tends to be around musicians who die young. But in this case, certainly, the cult is not misguided. He probably would have become an even better pianist — broader, wiser. But, even at his relatively tender age, he was great. Absolutely great. These souvenirs from Australia — priceless, un­expected gifts — confirm so.

— This article first appeared in the July 14, 2008, issue of National Review.


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