Restoration of an extraordinary American pianist The great virtuoso William Kapell, who was killed in 1953, is barely remembered. A new set of CDs may change that.

September 27, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

William Kapell was the James Dean of American pianists. He was young, he was handsome and he played the piano better than anyone. But he was a rebel with a cause. He was a musician whose example proclaimed to the rest of the world that American artists were the equal of any.

To many pianists of his generation, it seemed that Kapell united the qualities of their greatest older contemporaries: the red-blooded virility of Arthur Rubinstein, the high-strung brilliance Vladimir Horowitz and the profundity of Artur Schnabel.

Like Dean's, Kapell's death was heartbreakingly premature. He died 45 years ago at age 31 when the airplane that was bringing him back from an extended Australian tour crashed into a mountain outside San Francisco. His death was one of the three authentic tragedies in the piano world in this century - the others were the equally premature death of 33-year-old Dinu Lipatti in 1950 and the precipitous decline of Van Cliburn's powers in the late 1960s.

But except for a few aficionados and those who attend the piano competition named after Kapell and held every third year at the University of Maryland, College Park, American music lovers barely recognize the name. To even young Russian pianists and music lovers, Kapell remains a venerated figure; mention his name to a young American pianist and you're likely to get a blank stare. Part of the reason was the shameful neglect of his legacy by RCA Victor, for whom Kapell began recording in 1942.

Kapell's place in history should be restored, however, when this week BMG Classics issues its "William Kapell Edition," a nine-CD set (RCA Red Seal 902668442-2) that collects all of Kapell's studio recordings, in addition to several live recordings - including an entire recital from the Frick Collection in New York.

Kapell was one of the most honest musicians who ever lived. In his playing, one heard every voice and every line with simplicity, directness and passion. His Bach and Mozart were crystalline and pure; his Chopin and Rachmaninoff were classically shaped as well as smolderingly intense; he could make a Schubert melody sound as if the first bird in the world had just learned to sing.

He applied to others the same high standards by which he judged himself. He was a scrapper who was willing to take on anyone - record executives, managers, music critics and other musicians.

A long and affectionate relationship with Rubinstein was destroyed when Kapell accused the older man of failing to live up to his talent; there were conductors who hated him because he knew orchestral scores better than they did; there was even an occasion on which he had to be physically restrained from beating up a New York critic who had given Horowitz what Kapell considered an unfair review.

His first great success came in 1942 in New York when he gave the American premiere of Aram Khachaturian's Piano Concerto. The music was flashy and difficult, and Kapell's performance left no doubt that there was a 20-year-old pretender to the throne of Horowitz. That performance led a few years later to a recording of the piece with Serge Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony.

That famous recording led to Kapell's reputation as a virtuoso performer of Russian music - one that is certainly verified by his performances with the Philadelphia Orchestra of Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" (with conductor Fritz Reiner) and Piano Concerto No. 2 (with conductor William Steinberg).

No pianist, including the composer himself, has ever taken the "Rhapsody" at such a ferocious clip - Kapell plays the piece in under 22 minutes. But the pianist never sacrifices clarity for velocity; the performance (like his equally beautiful concerto) is shaped intelligently; and while never treated self-indulgently, the composer's gorgeous melodies are permitted to bloom magnificently.

In fact, after more than 50 years some of Kapell's recordings of Russian music - those of the Khachaturian Concerto, the Rachmaninoff "Rhapsody" and Prokofiev's Concerto No. 3 (with the Dallas Symphony and conductor Antal Dorati) - still sound to these ears as perhaps the finest ever made. That may also be said about some of the performances of non-Russian virtuosic music - particularly those of Liszt's "Mephisto Waltz" and Hungarian Rhapsody No. 11. Kapell plays the former with an insouciance and an ease that even surpass those to be heard on the recordings of the young Vladimir Ashkenazy.

For the most part, like Ashkenazy, Kapell plays the music relatively straight - eschewing the temptation to indulge himself in the manner of Horowitz or Gyorgy Cziffra. The one exception comes at the end when Kapell interjects a few notes in the coda that make his conclusion the most electrifying this listener has ever heard, on records or off.

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