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The Undefeated

William Kapell Edition

by William Kapell
RCA Red Seal, nine CDs, $123.98

1.

The only moments I have when I play that are worth anything to me are when I can blissfully ignore the people I am supposed to be entertaining,” wrote the American pianist William Kapell to a friend, the pianist Shirley Rhoads, from Australia, where he was unhappily on tour in 1953.

No me; no silly public to amuse; only the heart and the soul, the world, the birds, storms, dreams, sadness, heavenly serenity. Then I am an artist worthy of the name…. Until it happens, or if it doesn’t happen, I am miserable….

More than half a century has passed since Kapell died in a plane crash returning from Sydney. He was thirty-one. Revered by pianists, he is no longer widely familiar to the public, having been largely ignored after his albums went out of print by the 1960s. A generation of American pianists who looked to him as an inspiration—Van Cliburn, Byron Janis, Eugene Istomin, Leon Fleischer, Gary Graffman—supplanted him; then younger players succeeded them.

Was there any greater American pianist born during the last century than Kapell? Perhaps not. Certainly he was the most famous American-born player until Van Cliburn. He was a jukebox star during the 1940s, thanks to his performance of Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto, a noisy showpiece that Kapell came to resent, in the way that Rachmaninoff came to loathe his own Prelude in C-sharp Minor.

He was also a stereotype of a native New Yorker: bright, brash, tactless, competitive, funny, cocky, and thin-skinned. He could be exceptionally generous and also nasty. He was a nervous, obsessive person—and meticulous (he kept a diary to record, down to the minute, how long he practiced each piece, toting up the numbers month after month).

As the pianist Eugene Istomin once put it, Kapell was not an easy man, but he was a great one. At the keyboard he sat erect and was both intense and masterful, but his stage mannerisms could be curious and distracting; he waddled impatiently onto and off the platform, and occasionally made twitching movements during the orchestral parts of a concerto, occasionally even pulling a comb from his back pocket to scratch. There was a sense of edginess, a ferocity, about him and his musical sensibility.

Anger hardly does it justice,” Jerome Lowenthal, who was Kapell’s student and a teacher at Juilliard, told me recently, recalling Kapell’s periodic fits of displeasure during their lessons, which might go on for hours, and which Kapell provided free of charge. “He was poetic, charming, sweet, amusing, but he could also be a very scary person,” Lowenthal said. On the only film of him, a segment of Omnibus, the early television program hosted by Alistair Cooke, who was a friend of Kapell’s, Kapell looks as if he’s ready to murder Cooke when he interrupts the pianist before the end of a piece.

In a postwar world still dominated by turn-of-the-century European pianists, audiences found in Kapell something new: the first modern American star, not intimidated by Old World styles; he was fresh, a stupendous virtuoso, rivaling Horowitz. His playing was electric but also lyrical, guided by an instinct for architecture, with a beautifully conceived sense of musical line.

When in 1998 RCA Red Seal produced nine compact disks of Kapell’s performances, containing some previously released commercial recordings but also a few recordings never before issued, a new public started to appreciate him. Lowenthal’s students at Juilliard, able to hear Kapell for the first time, adopted him as an idol not just for his fleet fingers but also for the quality of his sound, its size and subtlety, and for his dedication to craft, Lowenthal says. Kapell was one of those pianists, like Sviatoslav Richter but unlike Rubinstein, who practiced ceaselessly, including on days when he performed.

Even with the nine disks, which included a complete recital at the Frick Collection in March 1953, aspects of Kapell remained obscure, above all his work during the very last months, when the effects of his increasing devotion to the central German repertoire—Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert—was, as he himself indicated in letters to Rhoads and others, making him into a larger sort of musical artist. Some private recordings from his Australian tour, several hours of music by Mozart, Debussy, Mussorgsky, Chopin, Prokofiev, and others, have turned up.

A retired department store salesman and manager from Melbourne, Roy Preston, recorded Kapell’s performances when they aired on Australian radio and preserved the recordings on acetate disks. Preston died in 2003, leaving his disks to a friend, Maurice Austin, who came upon a Web site for Kapell, through which he contacted Kapell’s grandson and passed on the recordings to Kapell’s widow, Anna Lou Dehavenon, who has pressed BMG, the successor to RCA, to produce a set of two CDs from the Australian material, including Chopin’s Barcarolle and B Minor Scherzo (with wrong notes, played at breakneck speed, thrillingly), along with Debussy’s Suite bergamasque, a more powerful version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition than the one from the Frick recital, and the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto.

The sound quality is uneven and there are gaps in some performances (during Pictures and the Rachmaninoff concerto, for example). But these are landmark recordings. Kapell might very easily have sustained a huge career playing splashy “warhorses” like the Rachmaninoff. By temperament, however, he was challenged to attempt the most profound music, and against the adamant instructions of his managers, chose to broaden his repertoire in the last years of his life. In turn this affected the way he played the warhorses, and you hear the results in Australia.

His Barcarolle illustrates his mature temperament: propulsive and big-hearted. Others play it wistfully, delicately. Kapell announces himself from the big opening chord and pushes forward, not rushing, but allowing the melody to unfold energetically, of its own passionate accord. The sound is large and bell-like, without fuss or aggression. It is the opposite of precious. Kapell always sounds youthful and direct. Clear harmonic voicing and long phrases, more than pressing tempos, give his performances their continuity and their modern character.

By “modern” I mean that Kapell was never quaint or coy or morbid (no attempts to achieve eccentric effects and no neurotic tempos). He distrusted charm. Nor was he proper. His “Clair de lune,” from the Debussy suite—transparent, heartbreaking—makes the work sound entirely new. The Rachmaninoff concerto, stripped of the familiar theatricalizing tactics and idiosyncrasies of dynamics and tempo, is uplifted by its speed and clarity as well as by its steady rhythm and remarkable lyricism. Kapell’s gorgeous sound has its own drama, replacing the sheer volume and expressive excess that in other performances suffice for theatrics. In a curious way, the playing is both exuberant and introspective. Rachmaninoff was said to have removed this concerto from his own repertoire after hearing Horowitz play it. I imagine Kapell’s performance might have had the same effect on him.

2.

Kapell was a pivotal figure in piano performance at the middle of the last century, representing the transition from Old World to New. When he emerged during the 1940s, a few giants, all of them born at or before the turn of the century, dominated—besides Horowitz, Rudolf Serkin, and Rubinstein, Moriz Rosenthal, Ignaz Friedman, and Josef Hofmann were still playing. So were Artur Schnabel and Alfred Cortot. Kapell revered Serkin, particularly for his understanding of Beethoven. His relationship with Rubinstein, for whom he first played as a boy, was fraught and ended badly, but it shaped Kapell’s approach to music. From Rubinstein he learned a kind of noble attitude, to which he added his own intensity. At times, he was so close in spirit to Schnabel, for whom he also played, that Schnabel once mistook a Kapell recording of Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto he heard on the radio for his own.

Horowitz was the magnetic force with which all pianists had to contend, even when this meant rejecting him. Kapell wrote from California to a friend in 1942:

I’m so weak from tears and shouting, that I can hardly write…. I just heard Horowitz here in Pasadena, playing the 3rd Concerto of Rachmaninoff. The man is such a genius of the piano that it seems inhuman to play like that…. He is not a pianist, he is a magician.

He added: “Compared to Horowitz, we are all…children learning a Czerny exercise.” Then, gradually, as he redefined himself as a musician, he changed his mind about Horowitz. “I used to call Horowitz the greatest pianist—now I refer to him as an excellent pianist,” he told Lowenthal in 1952, adding, “soon I’ll be saying that he plays really quite well.” You hear the influence of Horowitz—the powerful technique—but also the distance that Kapell put between himself and Horowitz in his own live recording of the Rachmaninoff concerto.

He wrote to Rhoads about being miserable when he felt unsatisfied on stage. Kapell clearly didn’t mind being regarded as an angry young man, as opposed to what he derided as an “English tea table” sort of pianist. As an American in a music world still dominated by Europeans, he sympathized with American composers, whom he championed at a time when his handlers at the Arthur Judson agency argued strongly against his playing anything unpopular like new American music. He nevertheless performed Copland’s Sonata (a cerebral and bracing version of it is among the RCA recordings). There was talk about his playing works by Charles Ives and Roger Sessions and Carl Ruggles, and recording a piece by Virgil Thomson. He considered commissioning works by Vincent Persichetti, Ned Rorem, Norman Dello Joio, and Peter Mennin. Kapell received an invitation to play the Barber Sonata, but he declined, saying he was steeped in the classical repertoire, a pity because it would have suited him.

It seems to me a crying shame that some of the fine pieces in our native literature are not played more often,” Kapell wrote to Thomson in 1952.

If we allow the present and lamentable accent on commerce and sensationalism to combine, our whole musical culture will be threatened. The situation today appears very serious and no little bit tragic. The powers that control this noble profession are making nitwits out of the large public. I, for one, am sick and tired of going along in any way with so-called public “taste.” Many artists do not realize that by doing so they slowly are dying, creatively; and when artists die, so does art.

That was typical of Kapell: missionary, belligerent, and skeptical.

The reviews of his Town Hall debut were published twelve years to the day before his plane crashed. He visited a palm reader in San Francisco with the pianist Eugene List not long after the debut, and she predicted a meteoric career and a violent death before thirty. She was half-right.

He was born September 20, 1922, into a typically idealistic Jewish middle-class family, the son of first-generation Polish-Russian émigrés who ran a bookstore at 1144 Lexington Avenue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. His mother was artistic and ambitious, his father more passive. Kapell’s biographers say that he took up the piano only at ten (late for a future professional), and after just six weeks was chosen among all the students at various settlement schools around the city to play for José Iturbi. In fact, he had had on-again, off-again piano lessons from about the age of seven before he arrived at the studio of Dorothea Anderson La Follette, a gifted teacher who provided him with a technical foundation and who in turn encouraged him to play for the great Russian pianist and Juilliard pedagogue Josef Lhevinne (La Follette’s own teacher), for Rubinstein, and for Olga Samaroff.

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