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The Undefeated


“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…

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