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William Kapell - Three First Performances
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873–1943)
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 [22:33]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891–1953)
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 3 in C Major, Op. 26 – two versions [25:43] & [25:40]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810–1849)
Nocturne in E-Flat, Op. 55, No. 2 [4:52]
William Kapell (piano)
Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York/Artur Rodzinski (Rachmaninov)
Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy (Prokofiev 1)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Richard Burgin (Prokofiev 2)
rec. live, Carnegie Hall, New York, 28 October 1945 (Rachmaninov); Academy of Music, Philadelphia, 22 February 1947 (Prokofiev 1); live, Symphony Hall, Boston, 21 March 1953 (Prokofiev 2); unissued test record, date unknown (Chopin)
All first releases except Rachmaninov, which is a new restoration from superior source
JSP RECORDS JSP684 [79:04]

Born in New York in 1922, William Kapell early showed auspicious musical talent, won his first competition at the age of ten and signed an exclusive recording contract with RCA Victor not yet 20. He soon played with the leading American orchestras and toured extensively, also in Europe and Australia, and was regarded as the most brilliant pianist of his generation. Alas, he wasn’t granted a long career. At the end of October 1953, when he had just turned 31, he lost his life in an airplane crash on his way home from a concert tour in Australia. An icon during his lifetime, his fame continued also after his death, thanks to several important pianists acknowledging his influence on them. His recordings, many of them on 78rpm discs, eventually became unavailable, but in 1998 RCA Victor issued his complete authorized recordings on 9 CDs, which sold well and established his name among the true greats of the 20th century. From time to time other recordings, of live concerts and broadcasts, have been in circulation among collectors, and still new finds pop up. On the present disc there are three first releases and a new restoration – of Rachmaninov’s Paganini-variations – from a superior source. The wizards, who have restored and transferred the original material to enjoyable conditions are John H. Haley and Seth B. Winner – both experienced and highly respected in the restoration business. They both give their views of the originals and the specific difficulties with these transfers in extensive technical notes in the booklet. I will only touch upon a few aspects in this review.

The Rachmaninov Rhapsody, recorded live at Carnegie Hall, is transferred from 16” transcription discs that are a vast improvement on the source that was the basis of a release issued on Pearl in 1996. I haven’t heard that disc, but the sound of the new transfer is certainly stunningly brilliant for a recording from 1945. The piano tone glitters and there is fizz in the orchestral strings as well. Kapell’s masterly finger-work is caught in all its glory. Even though this is first and foremost a display piece for a virtuoso, the poetry that is inherent in the music – in particular in variations 11 – 18, which constitute the equivalence of the slow movement in a traditional piano concerto – is sensitively interpreted with subtle dynamic gradations. Kapell had only learnt this music a couple of years earlier, the year when Rachmaninov died and had strong feelings about the music. It is also worth remembering that the Rhapsody was a fairly contemporary work in 1945. Rachmaninov had premiered it only eleven years earlier.

Prokofiev’s third piano concerto was also a work close to William Kapell’s heart. There exist several recordings, including a studio recording with Antal Dorati and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and a live concert with Stokowski and the New York Phil. The two versions on the present disc are first releases and quite different they are. The earliest, with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy, was recorded from a radio broadcast, made in studio without an audience in 1947. It is a quite recent find transferred from Voice of America transcription discs. The upper frequencies are rather subdued and there is none of the brilliance heard on the Rachmaninov, but the sound is very acceptable even so and without audience participation it is a ‘clean’ product. The reading is also solid, though a bit static, due to Ormandy’s rather metronomic approach.

The other version, taped at a concert in March 1953, only half a year before Kapell’s demise, has another premium orchestra, the Boston Symphony conducted by Richard Burgin. Burgin was concertmaster of the orchestra for more than 40 years and also assistant conductor. His reading has much more flexibility of tempo within the movements and more of subtle nuances. He also allows Kapell more freedom, more poetry and the immediate impression is that this is a much more lyrical and deeper-probing reading of the solo part, no doubt reflecting the development of Kapell’s insight. In six years he has matured considerably. The sound is a great deal better than on the Philadelphia recording with a lot more detail. But the restoration has involved considerable repair work, like filling out dropouts, removing audience noises and rebalancing the sound picture. The end product is of a quality that makes the listening wholly enjoyable.

The encore, Chopin’s Nocturne in E-Flat, Op. 55, No. 2, is something of an enigma. Nobody seems to know when or where it was made, but probably it was a test recording made in studio but surviving only in a tape copy. Also here a lot of work had to be done to make it presentable but it was worth the effort. The piece was obviously another favourite of Kapell’s and his playing is eminently satisfying.

Besides the technical notes there is also a long essay on Kapell and on the music by Jon M. Samuels, who was the producer of the nine-CD “William Kapell Edition” referred to in the first paragraph. Adorning the booklet are also a large number of photos of William Kapell, always good-looking and sorrowful.

Collectors of Kapell recordings – and I have understood that they are many – should snap this CD up without delay, but general listeners should also derive a lot of pleasure from this marvellous music-making in remarkable transfers.

Göran Forsling



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