William Kapell: A Larger, Truer Vision of a Passionate Modern

By Michael Kimmelman
New York Times
October 11, 1998

By the time William Kapell died in a plane crash in October 1953, at 31, he had already come to be recognized as the finest pianist America had produced. The popular pianists at the time were foreign-born: Horowitz, Rubinstein, Brailowsky, Hofmann. Then Kapell appeared, out of nowhere, it seemed, the son of a couple who owned a bookstore on Manhattan's Lexington Avenue.

He was strong-willed, insecure, compulsive, combative, a neurotically driven New Yorker. In photographs he looks a little like Olivier in profile. As an artist he was stupefyingly gifted, and everyone knew it. By his mid-20s he had a major career, a contract with RCA Victor, dates with Ormandy, Stokowski, Reiner, Monteux and Steinberg. His recording of the Khachaturian's Concerto with Koussevitzky became a jukebox hit.

Then he died, and as often happens, the fame faded. His recordings went out of print by 1960, and after that, only a few were occasionally available. Pianists still talked of him as an icon who had paved the way for the first generation of Americans to make a mark on the international scene -- Kapell was Van Cliburn's hero, for example, and many of those who heard Kapell in concert could, half a century later, still recall the experience as if it were yesterday -- but the public mostly forgot him.

So a new boxed set of nine CDs, containing not only previously released commercial recordings but also numerous recordings never before issued (RCA Red Seal 09026-68442-2), should come as a revelation to many. It is a landmark among piano recordings, and I suspect that anyone who hears Kapell for the first time will find his playing simply mind-boggling.

We are confronted here with an artist we now recognize as modern. He was a modern pianist of his generation, as Rubinstein was in the previous generation. Virgil Thomson once said that Kapell "was afraid of nobody because his heart was pure." What made him modern wasn't just the fact that over the objections of his cautious managers he championed living American composers and played their music with conviction. It was also that in the context of Lhevinne, Cortot, Friedman and other performers of the Romantic and virtuosic repertory whose esthetic roots were still in the late 19th century, Kapell represented a different approach: his performances were close to the score, balanced, architecturally sound while still being passionate.

Incredibly passionate. He had one of the great electrifying techniques (not even Horowitz played Liszt with more wry gusto), but he was in the end a poet. Dinu Lipatti, the ultimate pianist-poet, who also died young, makes a useful point of comparison: roughly the same age as Kapell, he played with a divine, almost unreal perfection and a precise moderation that we might now call post-Romantic, but he was a more strictly lyrical pianist than Kapell, whose style encompassed a singular degree of raw, demonic energy.

In a recorded interview, excerpted on one of the new disks, Kapell remarks how an "older school" of pianists "overplays the so-called Romantic aspects" of Chopin. He says that they favor "excessive rubati and a general weakening of the form more than anything else, and a weakening of transitional, cadential strengths in the music." Then, quickly, he adds, "the danger is too much objectivism, so to speak." And this, in a nutshell, was Kapell's genius: always, or almost always, to grasp the necessary balance, which is why pianists like Schnabel (who taught him for a while) and Rubinstein (with whom he had an on-and-off friendship) could claim him as an heir.

John Pfeiffer, one of his producers, once described how Kapell would do take after take after take in the studio, sometimes dozens at a time. "There was never a moment when you could just sit down and relax and enjoy the atmosphere or anything of that sort," Pfeiffer said. "It was all extremely intense."

Like other great artists, Kapell was a perfectionist. He practiced eight hours a day, even on the day of a recital. He recorded Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Liszt, Prokofiev, Khachaturian and Beethoven. But some pieces that he performed he never recorded commercially, because he didn't get around to them or he felt he wasn't yet ready. Others he recorded, but the recordings were never released: evidently, he found them unacceptable or they were not complete (a Bach partita with the gigue missing).

So his recordings languished in the BMG/RCA vaults until Jon M. Samuels, the producer of the new set, began to hunt through them. He discovered a trove of fresh material. Some private recordings turned up, along with an invaluable tape of a WNYC radio broadcast of a Kapell recital at the Frick Collection in 1953, which included Copland's Piano Sonata, the only recorded performance of the piece by Kapell.

Samuels put together a variety of music in addition to what had previously been released: works by Bach, Abram Chasins, Debussy, Mozart, Scarlatti, Schubert, Schumann and so on. There were also cello and violin sonatas with William Primrose and Jascha Heifetz.

What results is, if not a radically new vision of Kapell, a much larger, truer sense of his legacy, and a moving portrait of a young musician in the midst of change.

For instance, we hear Kapell playing different versions of the same work. Compared with his 1947 recording of a Schumann Romance, the version he recorded in 1949 sounds much smoother, more serene, with gorgeous long lines and a steady beat. One version of a Bach allemande is grave and heartbreaking; another, earlier one is brisker, less reflective. Kapell was turning more to Bach before he died, and the affinity was so natural, the playing so original (listen to his D major Partita) that had he lived, he might have reshaped the public's notion of Bach's keyboard music as much as Gould did (and Kapell was never willful).

What if? Kapell since his death has been one of music's conspicuous what if's. He would now be 76, so it is conceivable that he might still be playing. The set shows an evolving sensibility, one that had not always perfectly formed. Having established himself in big Romantic music, he took sabbaticals to study Mozart and Schubert, and what we hear in his recordings of a couple of movements from Mozart sonatas, for example, is charming but precious and unsteady. Kapell couldn't play an unmusical note, but he doesn't yet wholly inhabit this music either.

One attribute of the set is that it includes music, like the Mozart, with a few slipped notes and unresolved ideas, which, paradoxically, make the young Kapell seem more impressive. He is revealed to be an artist in progress: spontaneous, thinking, taking risks, sometimes impatient; nothing is ever automatic or dull.

And to judge from his performance of the Beethoven Second Concerto (with Vladimir Golschmann and the NBC Symphony), he was capable of playing the Classical repertory as well as anyone. I can imagine that he might have become a Mozart and Schubert player akin to Clifford Curzon, given time.

Of course, he didn't have time. About what he did do, I take for granted the basics: that his performances of Chopin and the Russians are among the best on record. There isn't a more Herculean or amusing version of "Pictures at an Exhibition" than the one here from the Frick recital. Kapell, unlike most pianists, plays "The Great Gate of Kiev" as marked, Allegro alla breve, not pompously slow. "The Ballet of the Chicks," besides being fast (he plays it presto then adds an accelerando), is a riot.

What is not often said about Kapell is that he could be very funny. His version of several Shostakovich preludes manages to sound wicked and jaunty while somehow remaining, deep down, melancholic. The Chopin mazurkas are full of wit and variety. He brings to the second theme of the one in C major (Op. 33, No. 3), for example, a kind of quizzical tone, moderated, not forte, as marked; and to the familiar Mazurka in G sharp minor (Op. 33, No. 1), just enough reserve to make you hear it fresh.

The same could be said for his version of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with Reiner and the Robin Hood Dell Orchestra. The work's hackneyed slow variation comes across with such restrained emotion and elegance that it made me weep.

As it happens Kapell wrote in his diary in 1943, on the day Rachmaninoff died, that he "worked a couple of hours on the 'Paganini Rhapsody' and cried all the way through it because I realized that the great master was no more."

Then he added what we might also say about him, through these recordings: "I am comforted that every day I can open the covers of some wonderful and magic world that he expressed in music. He shall never die for those who can play his works or for those fortunate enough to want to hear them."

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company