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William Kapell's Rediscovered Radio Broadcasts

available at Amazon
Kapell Rediscovered: The Australian Broadcasts

(released May 6, 2008)
RCA Red Seal 82876-68560-2
Way back in the prehistory of Ionarts, in 2004, we relayed the news that some new recordings of legendary American pianist William Kapell had surfaced. They were home-made recordings of radio broadcasts of concerts played by Kapell during his last, fated tour in Australia. On the return trip from that visit, in 1953, Kapell's plane crashed, cutting short an already brilliant, but all too brief, career. There is a distant personal connection to note, although it does not really account for my admiration of Kapell's playing. Mrs. Ionarts wrote her M.A. thesis on Kapell (William Kapell: A Performance History, Catholic University of America), which she undertook because of her relationship, professional and personal, with Kapell's daughter and grandchildren here in Washington. As it turns out, Eliot Leigh, the older of those grandchildren, is credited as the Assistant Engineer on this recording, which was finally released earlier this month. When we were living in France, we spent a weekend in Brussels, a trip that included taking in a performance of Magic Flute at the Monnaie, featuring young Eliot as one of the Three Boys.

As you might expect, the sound of live concerts broadcast on radio, recorded non-professionally, and digitally remastered leaves something to be desired. Still, in spite of the hiss and crackle, the distortion, the occasional lacuna, these discs allow you to reach back to 1953 and hear a legendary pianist at the height of his powers, undertaking demanding pieces that he did not have the chance to record in studio. A missing part of the third movement of the third Rachmaninoff concerto had to be filled in with a patch from a 1948 performance with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (the Australian orchestra on the radio broadcast is not identified). Similar audio surgery had to be performed on the Bach A minor suite (BWV 818), with the Allemande recorded in 1947. Kapell's Bach, still a couple years before Glenn Gould's 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations, crackles with energy.

William Kapell Box Set
William Kapell Box Set
Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition glistens with a dizzying array of colors, and the virtuosity of movements like the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks and Tuileries is astounding (the end of the final movement is also a patch, from a recital at the Frick Collection earlier in 1953). Not every track is necessarily something to be prized, as there are inevitable finger slips, as in most live performances. Mostly, the things that are thought to be Kapell's strengths are tantalizing listening -- Debussy's Suite Bergamasque, Prokofiev's hammering seventh sonata (a work that matches Kapell's musical personality and seemingly endless strength like a glove) -- and the reverse is also true (lackluster Mozart and slightly tarnished Chopin). An overblown arrangement of Thomas Arne's God Save the Queen, the Australian national anthem at the time of Kapell's visit, sounds like an obliging encore piece. Add in the excellent liner essay by Tim Page, and you are warmly advised to put this two-disc set on your shelf, next to the William Kapell Box Set that is already there (or should be).


Anonymous said...

When I was in my teens, I found folks who had access to private tapes of Kapell's performances and began to get a taste of what made him so very special. It's so nice that the lion's share of his work is now available to the next generation of listeners. Among the many "what if's" are what role he would have played commissioning new music in the 50s, 60s and 70s. Props to his family for keeping the flame alive.

Anonymous said...

You should mention that Washingtonians can access Kapell's documents at the International Piano Archives at the University of Maryland School of Music.

Charles T. Downey said...

Yes, thanks for the reminder about the International Piano Archives. Here's the link.