In Memory of William Kapell, Who Left Us Richer in Music

By Claudia Cassidy
Chicago Tribune
October 30, 1953

When I first heard him at Ravinia in 1943, he was 20, catapulted to fame by the Khatchaturian Concerto he was playing. It was not much of a concerto, but no one else has played it like that, with beauty and sweep and fire. It served notice, that concerto, of what was to come. Perhaps it was only just that it came, in a flood of splendor, at that same Ravinia in the summer of 1947 when he played the Third Rachmaninoff Concerto. No one who heard it will forget that performance. With it Kapell moved into the company of Horowitz and Rachmaninoff himself, who alone had conquered the citadel of that strange concerto, which is cheap unless it is magnificent. He forged the full splendor of the score from his amazing equipment of poetry and fire, of impishness and blazing technique. He conjured its curious fragrance by coaxing from the piano its loveliest songs.

From then on it was to me just a question of time when Kapell would be the foremost pianist. Season after season, that time came closer. He played crystalline Mozart, a Bach suite of unforgettable purity of tone. His Brahms rose from the deepest lyricism, yet knew the inimical and the brusque. It poured out in a torrent of fabulous performance last season in the most extraordinary performance I have known of the D Minor Concerto. I called that playing fabulous. The word stands.

These were performances the world knew. Some of the most beautiful, only his friends shared. He was not ready to give them to the public. He would come to our house late at night, after relentless hours of the slavery that is practice, and he would listen to a few records. To Caruso, for that prodigal outpouring of glorious tone. To Schnabel, whom he: adored. To the quality of Rachmaninoff the pianist, Horowitz the technical wizard, Serkin's Beethoven, the voluminous Rubinstein tone. But the piano always recaptured and held him, whatever the hour, and the neighbors never complained. Perhaps they knew their luck. For they heard Schubert, Schumann, Beethoven, the music of Spain, the Bach to come -- they heard what is now unbelievably no more. It is not easy to be such a pianist. It means slavery, sacrifice. It means in the concert hall to open your heart so wide you are incredibly vulnerable.

He was, this smoldering, passionate young pianist, generous, lovable, deeply gentle of heart. I loved his playing above all other playing, and this can scarcely be a secret to anyone who has read this column. So not for myself, but to tell you what he was like, now that he is gone, here is a part of one of his last letters:

"Why do you think playing in Chicago always is some sort of test for me? ... music isn't enough. Performers aren't enough. There must be someone who loves music as much as life. For you, and remember this always, those of us with something urgent to say, we give everything."

Kapell gave, and I am eternally grateful that I was here to listen.