William Kapell's Piano Benchmark

By Tim Page
Washington Post
September 27, 1998

America's first great pianist has finally been accorded the tribute he deserves. In a sumptuously produced, exhaustively documented, and altogether thrilling new set of nine compact discs, BMG Classics (formerly RCA Victor) has assembled virtually everything ever recorded for the company by William Kapell (1922-1953), who was a celebrated artist by the time he was in his twenties and who was killed in a freakish plane crash at the age of 31.

It would not be entirely accurate to suggest that Kapell has been forgotten in the 45 years since his death: There have been a number of reissues (including some so-called "pirated" performances that are excluded from this set) and the University of Maryland named its biannual piano competition after him. Still, this release will come as a revelation for most listeners, for we are finally permitted a more or less complete access to Kapell's legacy, and it is nothing less than staggering.

Here is Kapell in all of his manifestations -- in unfailingly patrician and meticulously thought-through performances of Chopin; in soulful, impassioned chamber music recordings with Jascha Heifetz, William Primrose and Edmund Kurtz; in dazzlingly virtuosic renditions of the finger-busting showpieces of Aram Khachaturian and Serge Prokofiev. Not to mention superb Bach, matchless Copland, a lithe, radiant performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat and many others -- 10 hours of glorious music-making, all in all.

As was the case with so many other musicians of his generation, Kapell was of Russian Jewish descent, born in Manhattan and educated in the New York City public school system. He won his first competition when he was 10; the prize was a turkey dinner with the pianist (and occasional movie star) Jose Iturbi. At the age of 19, Kapell made his professional debut in New York, with a well-received concert at Town Hall. In 1942, he signed an exclusive contract with the all-powerful Columbia Artists Management and shortly thereafter began his recording career for RCA.

The young Kapell was groomed as something of a glamour boy; his dark, fierce good looks, somewhat reminiscent of John Garfield, encouraged such a presentation. But he was a serious artist from the beginning -- practicing up to eight hours a day, keeping close track of what the young American composers were up to, forever struggling to transcend his repertory of flashy works that had brought him fame. He played one of those pieces, Khachaturian's Piano Concerto, so convincingly that his recording became an enormous hit; unfortunately, the concerto became so inextricably associated with Kapell's performance that it is now rarely revived. (After all, what pianist in sound mind would want to go up against such a formidable ghost?)

By the late 1940s, Kapell had toured the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia to immense acclaim and was widely considered the most brilliant and audacious of young American pianists. In 1947, he made a happy marriage to the former Rebecca Anna Lou Melson, with whom he had two children. With maturity, a new sense of spaciousness made itself manifest in Kapell's pianism and he began to set aside time for work with the artists he most admired, studying with Artur Schnabel and playing with Pablo Casals and Rudolf Serkin.

He spent his last summer in Australia, where he played 37 concerts in 14 weeks, appearing not only in Sydney and Melbourne, but all over the continent -- in places with names like Bendigo, Shepparton, Albury, Horsham and Goolong. It was in Goolong that Kapell played his last performance, shortly before setting off on his doomed return flight to the United States. The plane hit King's Mountain, a few miles outside San Francisco, on the morning of Oct. 9, 1953; all of the crew and passengers were killed instantly.

Because most of Kapell's early recordings were on 78 rpm records -- a format that was all but obsolete by the mid-'50s -- many of his performances have been unavailable for half a century. Nor were his LPs in print for long. Indeed, by 1960, there wasn't a single Kapell recording left in the catalogue and secondhand stores began to charge up to $250 for the scarcest titles. Despite a few short-lived reissues that subsequently appeared, for too many years you had to be rich, lucky or a longtime collector to know the art of William Kapell.

Yet the fascination continued; pianists such as Eugene Istomin, Gary Graffman, Leon Fleisher and Van Cliburn, among others, acknowledged Kapell's influence and tapes of "live" performances circulated among collectors. Kapell's widow -- now Anna Lou Dehavenon, a social anthropologist in New York -- deserves much of the credit for helping to keep her husband's name alive. Unlike the penny-wise and pound-foolish surviving relatives of some other great musicians, she always encouraged and supported small and not necessarily wealthy record labels in their endeavors to bring unknown Kapell performances to the public.

And now BMG has given us all of Kapell's "official" recordings -- as a solo pianist, as a partner in chamber music, and as a collaborator in concerto performances. The set also contains more than an hour of previously unreleased recordings and even a bonus disc -- a complete solo recital recorded live at the Frick Collection in New York, originally broadcast over WNYC-FM, and then mislaid for years and only recently discovered. It is a treasurable document, almost 75 minutes of music recorded only six months before Kapell died and representing his artistry at its most poised, poetic and perfectly honed. Moreover, almost every work he played on this program -- Chopin's "Polonaise-Fantaisie," Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," Scarlatti's Sonata in E and, unforgettably, Aaron Copland's only piano sonata -- was never duplicated in the studio. (Copland would dedicate his largest work for keyboard -- the Piano Fantasy [1957] -- to Kapell's memory.)

As mentioned above, Kapell's live-in-concert performances with orchestra are not included here, likely due to the substantial amount of money that orchestra unions habitually request whenever a "private" recording, however antiquated, is made public. (The interested collector is directed to Kapell's performances of De Falla's "Nights in the Gardens of Spain" with Leopold Stokowski, Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 with Sir Ernest MacMillan and Brahms's Piano Concerto No. 1 with Dmitri Mitropoulos, which should be easily found elsewhere.) But it seems churlish to complain about what has been left out of this set when so much music-making of such high quality has been restored so spectacularly.

Where to begin? Well, perhaps with Liszt's "Mephisto Waltz," 10 minutes of manic, tempestuous fury that was recorded when Kapell was only 22 years old. Had it been the sum total of the pianist's artistry that survived, this single disc would still entitle him to a place among the century's great musicians. It may seem heretical to suggest that Kapell began playing where Vladimir Horowitz left off, and yet that is the feeling one is left with after listening to this performance. The aquatic runs, the glassy glitter, the prismatic sense of pianistic color, and the massive octaves are all there -- but Kapell adds an unerring sense of form and linear continuity that I find lacking in all but the very finest of Horowitz's recordings.

A truncated performance of Bach's Partita No. 6 in D is no less astonishing, albeit for very different reasons. It sounds absolutely nothing like the luminous, heavily pedaled and gently romanticized Bach that was then in vogue. Rather, in its contrapuntal clarity and lean, tensile sense of drama, Kapell's rendition prefigures the work of Glenn Gould. (Indeed, it is at least possible that the teenage Gould heard Kapell play this work during a 1951 recital in Toronto; Alberto Guerrero, Gould's principal teacher, reviewed the concert for the Toronto Star.) Unfortunately, Kapell never recorded the final Gigue, and so we are left with a magnificent torso. No matter -- the same thing might be said of "The Canterbury Tales" or the Schubert "Unfinished" Symphony.

Yet another project left forever incomplete was a set of the Chopin mazurkas; Kapell had recorded only a little more than half of these concentrated miniatures when he was killed. What survives is splendid, however: Without any undue ostentation, Kapell illuminates fully the warmth, charm, sentiment -- and, indeed, the occasional, piercing sense of tragedy -- that Chopin constructed on what had hitherto been considered a simple, sturdy Polish dance form.

The Rachmaninoff performances are very much to my taste. Although Kapell clearly loved the Russian composer's music, he rarely indulged it. This "Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini" is crisp, energetic, heartfelt but never melting -- not even in the famous 18th variation, which can so quickly turn to soup. The luscious Cello Sonata, one of Rachmaninoff's very finest pieces, is similarly persuasive; to judge from this recording, Edmund Kurtz should have had an outstanding career.

The circumstances behind Kapell's final recording are shot through with a bitter irony. It is a performance of Chopin's Sonata in B-flat Minor (Op. 35) -- the so-called "Funeral March" sonata, named for its famous third movement -- captured almost by accident during a radio transmission. It is an eerie coincidence that this should have been the last piece on the program of the last concert Kapell ever played, in Goolong on Oct. 22, 1953, only a week before his death. The dim, somewhat clangorous recorded sound should not obscure the fact that this is one of the very greatest performances of the sonata -- a reading of fire, fury and, in retrospect, almost unbearable poignancy.

Jon M. Samuels, who produced this set for BMG, has done a superlative job. Not only do most of the recordings sound as if they might have been made yesterday, but they are arranged throughout in an intelligent and musically compelling order. Instead of following a strict chronology, Samuels has broken up the recordings into satisfying units in and of themselves.

And so Disc 1 is devoted entirely to Chopin's mazurkas; Disc 2 contains other Chopin pieces, as well as works by Mendelssohn, Schumann and Mozart; Disc 3 is almost all Rachmaninoff (with about four minutes of Shostakovich for lagniappe); and so on. The chamber music performances make up all of Disc 7, and the complete Frick concert is on Disc 8. The ninth disc is a sort of catch-all -- fragments of Bach, Mozart, Chopin and Brahms performances, an early home recording of Mendelssohn's "Spinning Song," and a 22-minute radio interview from 1953, in which Kapell sounds tired and bored as he copes with a succession of questions that are somehow both pompous and uncomprehending.

With any luck, this massive, beautiful reissue ought to win Kapell a whole new audience; never before has the breadth and depth of his genius been so apparent. "Kapell was a pathfinder of the most extraordinarily potent kind," his student, pianist Jerome Lowenthal, once said. "There's a beauty, an aesthetic completeness about that driven, violent personality, cutting a path through the world, becoming the adored hero of the public, playing ever more beautifully and finally colliding with a mountain. That's the stuff of legend."

Now we can judge the legend for ourselves. This set is not to be judged as more "product" from a record company. Rather, it is a grand artistic testament -- and it is for the ages.

Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company