Even at this late date, another one has come to light—another recording of a performance by William Kapell. Hear it here.
Kapell was an American pianist who died young. Born in September 1922, he died in October 1953, when he was thirty-one. His plane crashed on a return from an Australian tour. He was brilliant, Willy Kapell.
I wrote about him in 2008, when a trove of recordings came to light: Kapell in performance on that Australian tour. Let me quote some general remarks:
He was a dedicated student, an incessant learner—a fanatical practicer (eight hours a day, even when he had a performance). He was a virtuoso, and a stupendous one. But he was also a musician of keen intelligence and sensitivity. And he always strove to know a composer’s intentions, obeying them.
A little more:
He is often called a typical American pianist, and maybe even the quintessential one. Now, what does that mean? Nationality in music-making is difficult to discuss, but I think it means this: He was brash, daring, “new.” He was virile, bold, unbounded. “Athletic” is a word we always apply to his playing.
And he was an amalgam of the various “schools” around the world: the French, the Russian, the German. All of these traditions flowed through his musical blood.
Further in that piece, I wrote something that strikes me as curious now (as I will make plain in a minute):
There is some stellar playing and some weak playing. To address the latter first:
Kapell plays Mozart’s Sonata in B flat, K. 570, and he is not especially natural in it. He seems a foreigner in Mozart country. In Debussy’s Suite bergamasque—that’s where we get “Clair de lune”—Kapell is sometimes heavy and unnuanced. And the Precipitato of Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7 is maybe a little ordinary.
But so what? These discs contain some of the most wondrous and phenomenal piano playing you will ever hear.
Yup. Try Pictures at an Exhibition, a Mussorgsky masterpiece, for example.
In the latest recording—the most recently unearthed recording—Kapell plays Mozart: the Concerto No. 17 in G, K. 453. He is no foreigner in it; he is perfectly, wonderfully at home.
A little sleuthing, i.e., Googling, tells me that Kapell was the soloist in the first-ever performance of this concerto by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. That was at the Ravinia Festival, in 1949, and Fritz Reiner was on the podium. There is no recording of that performance, so far as I’m aware. But K. 453 was evidently firmly in Kapell’s repertoire.
This new recording (“new”) comes from the Prades Festival in June 1953. Prades is a little town in Northern Catalonia, France. It became the home of Pablo Casals, the great cellist, after the Spanish Civil War. He was a cellist, yes—also a conductor (and a composer). And it is Casals who leads the festival orchestra in the Mozart concerto.
Also on the program that day was Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B flat and Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 (also B flat).
The sound is poor—the sound of the recording, I mean. But you put up with it because Kapell is in great form, and so is Casals. This is elegant, bold, confident Mozart. It is by no means bloated. It is simply direct, full, and unafraid. Kapell expresses all the nobility, loveliness, and mirth that the music needs. His playing is at once sensitive and virile. It has the quality of “just-rightness,” to use a phrase I sometimes call on.
Kapell was many things in his brief, brilliant life—including a Mozartean.
I wonder whether he performed an encore on this occasion. If so—I wonder what it was, and I wish we had a recording of that, too. William Kapell died almost seventy years ago—yet the recordings keep coming. I wonder what will turn up in the future.
The pianist’s son Dave lives in Greenport, New York, which is near the end of the North Fork of Long Island. I know him and his wife, Eileen. Dave Kapell was mayor of Greenport for many years. The Kapells are entrepreneurs, working in both real estate and antiques. Recently, I met their granddaughter, Willa. I said to her grandparents, sort of marveling, “So, this is Willy Kapell’s great-granddaughter.” Indeed she is.
This makes my spine tingle, somehow. These human connections to that man.