[A review of one of the most important historical issues I have encountered.]

“The William Kapell Edition.”
RCA Victor Red Seal 09026-68422-2 (9 CDs).

Musicians wept when they heard that William Kapell had died in a plane crash in 1953. Kapell had been en route to California to record the two remaining Brahms Violin Sonatas with Jascha Heifetz (they had done the Third in 1950). Heifetz later refused to record those Sonatas with another pianist. “They belonged to Willy,” he said. And he never did record them again.

In recent years it has been difficult for those who never heard Kapell to find out why such a legend had developed around an American pianist who died at 31. His LPs went out of print, and commonly brought prices of $100 or more when they could be found at all. And until now, RCA had reissued only a few of his recordings on little-publicized CDs.

The label has now made up for lost time in a spectacular way, producing a set that is certain to revive Kapell’s reputation. All of his commercial recordings are here, along with a number of previously unpublished takes and even an interview.

The biggest news is the discovery, in fine sound, of a complete 1953 Frick Collection recital broadcast from New York. Kapell never recorded any of the major works in this recital, which includes a superb performance of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantaisie, and one piece in particular that his admirers had given up hope of hearing: Copland’s Piano Sonata. Kapell’s playing of this piece had drawn much favorable comment in the music press, and we can now hear why. Copland so admired Kapell’s playing of his Sonata that he was writing his Piano Fantasy for Kapell when the pianist died. It was dedicated to Kapell’s memory.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Kapell is the range of his artistry. He made his early reputation in the 1940’s by playing the big virtuoso concertos of the 20th century. His recordings of concertos by Khachaturian, Prokofiev, and Rachmaninov are still as blazingly intense, virtuosic, and exciting as they seemed years ago. But he could also play Schubert with the greatest tenderness, and Chopin Mazurkas with idiomatic rhythms and lively imagination. His chamber music collaborations, including the Brahms Sonata with Heifetz, are superbly judged and balanced, virtuosos pushing each other towards greater involvement with the music, not towards display or competition.

One special treasure of the set is Debussy’s Children’s Corner, issued complete for the first time. (Half of it came out on an ultra-rare 45.) Kapell’s unpretentious delivery of Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum demonstrates his intelligence and his sly, understated humor. The Golliwog’s Cakewalk gets the proto-ragtime rhythm just right, as few pianists do, and the brief parody of Wagner in its center might just make you laugh out loud.

And then there’s Kapell’s visionary Bach. All we have is a brief Suite and most of the Partita No. 4. (He never finished recording the final Gigue.) Had Kapell lived to play and record more Bach performances like these, the release of Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations in 1955 might have come as less of a revelation to listeners. Kapell played Bach with the same kind of clarity and intensity, almost unique among the musicians of his time.

The previously-unpublished interview with Kapell was obviously done for a radio broadcast, not long before his death. It starts out rather stiffly, pianist and interviewer a bit uncomfortable with each other. But before long both of them relax, and Kapell gets to some very insightful and, eventually, quite moving observations on music-making and recording. The personality that comes across in this precious recording is somehow reserved and outgoing simultaneously. You can sense the dedication that Kapell’s colleagues frequently mentioned.

This set does not attempt to include the complete surviving recordings of Kapell. Other material issued on CD by smaller labels (Pearl, Arbiter, Music & Arts) is not duplicated in this set. Nor, alas, is the material once on an LP issued by the International Piano Archives, which included several pieces not currently available anywhere in Kapell’s performances. But to complain would be churlish. This set is a voyage of discovery for piano lovers, beautifully produced and lovingly transfered from the best available source materials. It belongs in any music-lover’s collection.

–Leslie Gerber

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