William Kapell (piano)
Broadcast and concert performances
rec. various locations, 1944-1952
Complete contents below
MARSTON 53021-2 [3 CDs: 71:44 + 79:23 + 73:38]

Within the space of five years, the world of classical music lost three distinguished instrumentalists in plane crashes: Ginette Neveu in 1949, and Jacques Thibaud and William Kapell in 1953. Kapell was only 31 when he met his demise. Significantly, these three tragic events, amongst several aviation disasters that occurred around that time, prompted the violinist Yehudi Menuhin and his wife to restrict their travelling to land and sea for eight years, from 1952 to 1960.

Kapell (1922-1953) was born in New York, having his first piano lessons there with Dorothea Anderson La Follette. He later studied with Olga Samaroff, first in Philadelphia, then at the Juilliard School in New York when she relocated there. He made rapid progress and won his first competition at the young age of only ten. Unusually, the prize was a turkey dinner with the pianist José Iturbi. When eventually his career took off he toured the USA, Canada, Europe and Australia with tremendous success, eventually signing a recording contract with RCA Victor's Red Seal label. In 1947 he married Rebecca Anna Lou Melson, and fathered two children. The eminent music critic Harold Schonberg rated Kapell the most promising American pianist of the post-World War II generation. In the summer of 1953 he undertook a tour of Australia, giving concerts in Sydney and Melbourne, as well as in some less well-known places such as Bendigo, Shepparton, Albury, Horsham and Geelong. His final concert took place at Geelong on October 22. On his return flight to the States his plane crashed on Kings Mountain, south of San Francisco. There were no survivors.

These live broadcast performances derive from concerts and radio broadcasts that took place between 1944 and 1952, the year before the pianist’s untimely death. These recorded documents are here making their debut on CD, with two-thirds of the set previously unpublished in any form. The two 1952 half-hour studio broadcasts from New York's WQXR have only recently been discovered.

Bach’s less well-known Suite in A minor, BWV 818 demonstrates what a superb Bach player Kapell would have been had he lived longer. He plays with refinement, finesse and immaculate articulation. Contrapuntal lines are teased out, so as to reveal the music’s inner voices, and ornamentation is tasteful. A couple of months before the Carnegie Hall performance, the pianist recorded the work commercially for RCA in New York. The same profound musicianship can also be found in the 1951 performance of the Bach/Busoni Nun komm der Heiden Heiland. Refinement and poise are also a hallmark of the two Mozart sonatas – K. 330 in C and K. 570 in B flat. The scrupulous attention to detail in phrasing and dynamics is admirable. The slow movements are imbued with rarefied expressiveness and beguiling innocence. Kapell commands a wonderful cantabile style, ideal for this music. The finales, in both sonatas, are joyous and uplifting in their geniality.

The set contains two complete Debussy suites. Children's Corner, from a 1952 WQXR broadcast, ticks all the right boxes, transporting us into a world of fantasy.  Kapell's intuitive pedalling confers myriad tonal shades. Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum is lithe and sparkling in its articulation. The impressive sonorities in The Little Shepherd are a miracle of delicacy of touch, and in the Golliwog's Cakewalk the syncopations are rhythmically crisp. The performance benefits from well-preserved sound quality. The Suite bergamasque, taped a year earlier in October 1951, derives from a Connecticut College recital. The audience are particularly bronchial. Outstanding is the ubiquitous Clair de Lune, which is tender and intimate, without sounding over-indulgent.

Other highlights include two Chopin Mazurkas, both deeply personal utterances, subtly contoured. The Schumann Romance is pensive and eloquent, as is the Brahms A flat Intermezzo, Op. 73 No. 3. Olga Samaroff encouraged Kapell to play three of Shostakovich's Op. 34 Preludes for his 1941 debut recital. Here he gives us nos. 24, 10 and 5; the latter two he was to take into the recording studio three weeks later. These convincing readings make one wish he'd set down a complete cycle. I'm particularly taken by three curiosities included. Robert Palmer's Toccata Ostinato was written especially for Kapell; it's a boogie-woogie in 13/8. Abram Chasin's Tricky Trumpet, no. 6 of his Piano Playtime, is a quirky morsel, and El gato by Emilio Napolitano, a South American extravaganza, is rendered with zest and zeal.

Although the bulk of material here relates to the solo piano, there are three items for piano and orchestra. The Rachmaninov Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini happens to be the earliest of the recordings in the set. It's a radio broadcast from 28 October 1944, with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. It's in remarkably good shape for its age. The pianist was later to record it commercially with the Robin Hood Dell Orchestra and Fritz Reiner in June 1951. Kapell's scintillating virtuosity is very much in evidence. I do profess to a slight preference for this earlier airing which has more fire, exhilaration and spontaneity, no doubt generated by the live event. The energy and intensity is due also in part to Ormandy's inspirational and rhythmically flexible conducting. The 18th variation is exquisitely phrased, and the luminous tone Kapell achieves is to be admired. His complete technical command of the instrument is what first attracted me to his playing when, years ago, I was bowled over by his 1945 recording of the Liszt Mephisto Waltz which, for me, is the finest and most thrilling performance of the piece I've ever heard - a desert island disc if ever there was one.

The Strauss Burleske has added value in that Kapell’s interpretation of this compelling score resides in this sole live recording. He was asked by Fritz Reiner to learn it for concerts with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra on 30 January and 1 February 1948. The pianist knuckled down, learning it in less than a week. What we have here is the second performance. In both concerts the Strauss was paired with the Shostakovich First Concerto. By all accounts, the pianist did not react positively to his performance of the Burleske, maybe feeling that time restraints precluded detailed familiarity with the score. The upshot was that a later release of the performance wasn’t sanctioned, whilst his wife was still alive. Last year the pianist’s son and daughter, David and Rebecca Kapell, gave the go-ahead for the release with the proviso that the context was explained. Thanks to them we now have it, and it is difficult to understand the pianist’s dissatisfaction with it. The booklet notes refer to the electricity Kapell’s pianism generated, and that vital spark of genius runs through this captivating reading. The performance is self-assured and exudes confidence, alternating warm lyricism with Lisztian bravura. The original discs have been re-mastered by Seth Winner, and despite the less than ideal sound, the freshness, commitment, sense of abandon and rhythmic vitality, shine through.

In 1950, four of Olga Samaroff's students came together to perform Bach's piano transcription of Vivaldi's Concerto for Four Violins, in memory of their teacher who had died two years earlier. Seated at the four pianos were Rosalyn Tureck, Eugene List, Joseph Battista and William Kapell. The instruments blend well, and the soloists match phrase for phrase, leaving you with the impression that only one piano is playing. It's an exciting performance of this rarely heard work, sensitively accompanied by the NBC Strings under Milton Katims.

Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat, Op. 44 with the Fine Arts Quartet is, apart from several duo sonata recordings with the likes of Heifetz and Primrose, the only example of the pianist collaborating in a large-scaled chamber work. For a private recording, I’m amazed how fine it sounds. The performance has obviously been well-rehearsed, and ensemble is to be marvelled at. All concerned put plenty of heart and soul into this extrovert and ebullient performance. The audience seem to approve and fully.

In spite of the fact that the Kapell discography is limited, he has been reasonably well-served on CD. In 1998 RCA released a nine-CD set corralling his complete commercial legacy, together with some previously unpublished material. Music & Arts, Pearl and Arbiter fill in some of the gaps. Marston’s contribution is of immense value, expanding and widening the pianist’s discography even further, contributing new material that has recently come to light, in addition to new transfers of several pieces previously issued on an International Piano Archives LP. Ward Marston supplies a useful note on the task of re-mastering this diverse material, highlighting some of the problems he encountered along the way; it makes for an interesting read. As is the norm with Marston, accompanying documentation is exemplary, with Bradford Gowen supplying a ten-page essay, placing the recordings into some sort of context. A bonus is ‘A Personal Reminiscence’ written by the late American pianist Raymond Lewenthal (1923-1988) in 1973, on the twentieth anniversary of the pianist’s death, in which he relates his brief acquaintance with Kapell. Adorning the booklet are some fascinating black and white photographs.

Pianophiles will find much to savour and enjoy in this interesting release.

Stephen Greenbank
Pianophiles will find much to savour and enjoy in this interesting release.
CD 1 [71:44]
21 March 1947, Carnegie Hall Recital, New York City
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Suite in A Minor, BWV 818
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Sonata No. 10 in C, K. 330
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Mazurka in F Minor, Op. 63, No. 2
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Intermezzo in A-flat, Op. 76, No. 3
28 February 1945, Carnegie Hall Recital, New York City
Frédéric CHOPIN
Nocturne in B-flat Minor, Op. 9, No. 1
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Romance in F-sharp, Op. 28, No. 2
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
La soirée dans Grenade, No. 2 from Estampes
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Three Preludes from Op. 34
Emilio NAPOLITANO (1907-1989)
El gato (Argentine Dance)
Robert PALMER (1915-2010)
Toccata ostinato
1 February 1948, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Burleske in D Minor for piano and orchestra
with the Pittsburgh Symphony, conducted by Fritz Reiner

CD 2 [79:23]
9 June 1952, WQXR Studio Broadcast, New York City
Opening announcement
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART
Sonata No. 17 in B-flat, K. 570
Enrique GRANADOS (1867-1916)
The Maiden and the Nightingale, No. 4 from Goyescas
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Ländler No. 7 in A-flat Minor, D. 783 (Op. 171)
Ländler No. 12 in A-flat, D. 783 (Op. 171)
Abram CHASINS (1903-1987)
Tricky Trumpet, No. 6 from Piano Playtime
Frédéric CHOPIN
Beginning of third movement (Largo) from Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 58
(with closing announcement)
15 June 1952, WQXR Studio Broadcast, New York City
Opening announcement
Children’s Corner
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 11 in A Minor, S. 244
Announcer interviews William Kapell
28 October 1944, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1875-1943)
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43
with The Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy

CD 3 [73:38]
17 October 1951, Connecticut College Recital, New London, Connecticut
Johann Sebastian BACH /Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)
Nun komm der Heiden Heiland, BWV 659
Suite bergamasque
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 11 in A Minor, S. 244
Frédéric CHOPIN
Mazurka in C-sharp Minor, Op. 6, No. 2
Manuel de FALLA (1876-1946)
The Miller’s Dance from The Three-Cornered Hat
1947, Transcribed Radio Program, The Music Hall of Fame, New York City
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART
Third movement, Allegretto, from Sonata No. 10 in C, K. 330
William Kapell recounts two humorous incidents in playing recitals
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Song Without Words in F-sharp Minor, Op. 67, No. 2
20 May 1950, NBC Broadcast, New York City
Johann Sebastian BACH
Concerto in A Minor for four klaviers, after Vivaldi, BWV 1065
with Rosalyn Tureck, Eugene List, and Joseph Battista, and the NBC Strings, conducted by Milton Katims
21 November 1951, Northwestern University Chamber Music Concert, Chicago
Piano Quintet in E-flat, Op. 44
with the Fine Arts Quartet: Leonard Sorkin and Joseph Stepansky, violins; Sheppard Lehnhoff, viola; George Sopkin, cello