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William Kapell Rediscovered - The Australian Broadcasts

Release Date: 05/06/2008 
Label:  Sony   Catalog #: 68560   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Sergei RachmaninovJohann Sebastian BachModest MussorgskyThomas Augustine Arne,   ... 
Performer:  William Kapell
Conductor:  Sir Bernard Heinze
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Victorian Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

WILLIAM KAPELL REDISCOVERED—THE AUSTRALIAN BROADCASTS William Kapell (pn); Bernard Heinze, cond; Victorian SO 1 RCA 68560 (2 CDs: 150:42) Broadcast: Victoria 7/53

RACHMANINOFF Piano Concerto No. 3. BACH Suite in a, BWV 818. MUSSORGSKY Pictures at an Exhibition. Read more class="COMPOSER12">TRAD God Save the Queen. MOZART Piano Sonata in B?, K 570. DEBUSSY Suite bergamasque. CHOPIN Barcarolle in f?. Nocturne in E?, op. 55/2. Scherzo No. 1 in b. PROKOFIEV Piano Sonata No. 7

The great American pianists born in the 1920s were a doomed cohort. Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman both suffered from debilitating hand injuries; Leonard Pennario lost his way in the 1960s; Ruth Slenczynska was crushed (although fortunately not destroyed) by parental abuse. William Kapell (1922–1953) was arguably the most talented of the lot, and he had the shortest career of all, dying in a plane crash while returning from a grueling Australian tour. Several years ago, RCA, which had nurtured and supported the pianist from his earliest years, reissued all his published recordings in a nine-disc set rounded out with a few outtakes and some live performances. Now they’ve produced a pendant consisting of recently resurrected broadcast material from the Australian tour, fortuitously recorded by Roy Preston, a music enthusiast from Melbourne. Granted, it’s not entirely new. The Mussorgsky has circulated before, and three gaps in the performances (a chunk of the Rachmaninoff, the ending of the Mussorgsky, and the first movement of the Bach) have been filled in with the corresponding music snipped from other Kapell performances. Still, this is for the most part terra incognita , even for the pianist’s fans.

What does it reveal? Central to the Kapell mythology is the belief that despite his youth, he had matured greatly before his death. As Tim Page puts in his typically erudite and lucid notes, “It may seem strange to speak of ‘early,’ ‘middle,’ and ‘late’ periods in a career that lasted only a dozen years, but there was a marked growth in Kapell’s artistry over time, which we hear reflected in these interpretations, the latest of ‘late Kapell.’” It’s a plausible claim, but does it really tell us anything distinctive about Kapell? I think not, since it would be hard to argue that Kapell grew more than most musicians of his stature between the ages of 19 and 31—that, for instance, Kapell’s late performances differ from his early ones more than Glenn Gould’s 1963 recordings differ from the performances we have from 1951. More to the point, Page’s claim puts listeners in the wrong frame of mind. What we hear on these discs is still very much a young man’s playing—and those turning to the set expecting a new depth, especially in his readings of the pre-Romantics, may well be disappointed. The Mozart is gracious, with imaginative articulation and dynamics, especially in the first movement—but there’s also a fair amount of flat phrasing and a few twists of preciousness; the Bach, fairly brisk, has a refreshingly modernist surface, but none of the imagination that, even before his famous 1955 Goldberg , the much younger Gould was already bringing to the composer.

No, what’s most riveting here is Kapell’s familiar dynamic way with the virtuoso repertoire: his searing impetus in the Rachmaninoff, his vital characterization in Pictures , his implacability in the Prokofiev (a work otherwise unrepresented in his discography). It’s not that the playing is in any way uniform: indeed, the imaginative voicing and the variety of touch and dynamics are among its strongest virtues. Nor is it that he’s incapable of quiet reflection: try the rapt conclusion to the first movement’s development in the Concerto, the exquisite touch at the end of the Debussy “Minuet,” or, most striking of all, the mystery in the middle movement of the Prokofiev, where its links to Ravel’s “Le gibet” are made terrifyingly clear. But on the whole, you’re more likely to treasure this album for its vigor than for its caress. Thus, he jabs at the Rachmaninoff more than he coaxes it, producing a sharply etched performance far more remarkable for its rhythmic vitality and its keen gestural precision than for its harmonic opulence; his confident Debussy is generally more alert to the music’s momentum than to its color, more alert to its rhapsodic impulse than to its fragrance, even in “Clair de lune”; he prefers the rough-hewn awkwardness of the Mussorgsky rather than the lyricism that Ravel mined in his orchestration; in the Chopin Nocturne he emphasizes the contestatory nature of the counterpoint, producing a performance of roiled intensity. Best of all, to my ears, are the two Chopin works for which we don’t have alternative Kapell recordings: the raging performance of the Barcarolle and the torrential recording of the First Scherzo. Kapell’s Chopin was always notable for its focus, but these recordings are even more concentrated than his famed account of the Third Sonata. Indeed, this release would be worth purchase for the Scherzo alone.

There are a few slips and stumbles (including a surprising skid in the beginning of the Mozart), some editorial decisions are questionable, and the sound throughout is poor—especially in the Debussy, which is plagued by cross talk from another station. Even given the poor quality of the originals, I suspect that RCA could have done better restoration work. But with playing like this, collectors won’t find these to be significant obstacles. Not by any means the first stop for Kapell newcomers, who are urged to turn to RCA’s earlier releases—but it’s an indispensible supplement. Highest recommendation.

FANFARE: Peter J. Rabinowitz

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Works on This Recording

Concerto for Piano no 3 in D minor, Op. 30 by Sergei Rachmaninov
Performer:  William Kapell (Piano)
Conductor:  Sir Bernard Heinze
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Victorian Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1909; Russia 
Suite in A minor, BWV 818 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer:  William Kapell (Piano)
Period: Baroque 
Written: circa 1722; Cöthen, Germany 
Pictures at an Exhibition for Piano by Modest Mussorgsky
Performer:  William Kapell (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1874; Russia 
God Save the King by Thomas Augustine Arne
Performer:  William Kapell (Piano)
Period: Baroque 
Written: 1745; England 
Sonata for Piano no 17 in B flat major, K 570 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Performer:  William Kapell (Piano)
Period: Classical 
Written: 1789; Vienna, Austria 
Barcarolle for Piano in F sharp major, B 158/Op. 60 by Frédéric Chopin
Performer:  William Kapell (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1845-1846; Paris, France 
Nocturnes (2) for Piano, B 152/Op. 55: no 2 in E flat major by Frédéric Chopin
Performer:  William Kapell (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1843; Paris, France 
Scherzo for Piano no 1 in B minor, B 65/Op. 20 by Frédéric Chopin
Performer:  William Kapell (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1831-1832; Poland 
Sonata for Piano no 7 in B flat major, Op. 83 by Sergei Prokofiev
Performer:  William Kapell (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1939-1942; USSR 
Suite bergamasque by Claude Debussy
Performer:  William Kapell (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1890/1905; France 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  1 Customer Review )
 Kapell's Discovered Treasures December 16, 2011 By T. Drake (South Euclid, OH) See All My Reviews "Willy was beyond a doubt the greatest pianistic talent this country [USA] has ever produced." Leon Fleischer

America has seen its share of pianistic careers cut short for varying reasons: whether due to burnout (Van Cliburn), hand injuries (Leon Fleischer, Gary Graffman), or other ailments (Byron Janis). Even Murray Perahia, arguably the best American pianist active today, has battled stress related hand problems over the last 15 years. No piano career ended more tragically than William Kapell's, who died in a plane crash in 1953.

Kapell was returning home from a tour of Australia when his plane crashed into a mountain just south of Half Moon Bay, California. Twenty years ago, an off the air recording of Chopin's B-flat Minor Sonata from that last tour emerged, and rumors have floated for years about other Australian Kapell recordings. This two CD set contains those performances, the last recorded examples of Kapell's work.

Much has been written about the "new" Kapell that emerged in the last two years of his life, one less focused on keyboard pyrotechnics and gravitating toward the traditional German masters and a more contemplative style. Kapell's performance of the Bach Suite points toward the future in that his approach has similarities to Glenn Gould's, minus the Canadian pianist's insufferable vocalizing. The Mozart Sonata is played with clarity, tasteful phrasing, and a discrete rhythmic snap. It is poles apart from the Rococo, porcelain doll approach which was already falling out of favor.

It's neither inaccurate nor demeaning of Kapell to note that the pianist was somewhat under the spell of Vladimir Horowitz. Nearly every American pianist of the time was. (Kapell wanted to study with Horowitz, but the elder pianist demured, stating there was nothing he could teach Kapell.) Both the Prokofiev Seventh Sonata and Chopin Scherzo have Horowitzian touches, including interlocking octaves at the end of the Scherzo.

Whatever his similarities with Horowitz, Kapell was his own man in Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. The pianist plays the score, which was seldom performed as a piano piece at the time, pretty much as written. His performance is easily on par with Richter's famed Sofia account.

It is not Horowitz I think of when hearing Kapell's performance of the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto, but the composer. Kapell has that same aristocratic, yet restless approach. Unfortunately, Kapell employs the cuts in the score used by the composer. It's intriguing to think what a 40 year old Kapell, (circa 1962) would have done with this music.

Recorded off the air by an amateur using a home disc cutting machine, the sound is problematic. There is a great deal of static, clicks, and pops, as well as what sounds like cross talk with another radio station (audible during quieter pieces). Signal to noise ratio is poor, and a few moments have had to be patched from other Kapell recordings. Kapell fans will not be fazed by this, but those who insist on perfect sonics may find their enjoyment of these remarkable performances impaired. "
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