CD 1 (71:44)
21 March 1947, Carnegie Hall Recital, New York City
|Suite in A Minor, BWV 818
|III Sarabandes I and II
|Sonata No. 10 in C, K. 330
|I Allegro moderato
|II Andante cantabile
|Mazurka in F Minor, Op. 63, No. 2
|Intermezzo in A-flat, Op. 76, No. 3
28 February 1945, Carnegie Hall Recital, New York City
|Nocturne in B-flat Minor, Op. 9, No. 1
|Romance in F-sharp, Op. 28, No. 2
|La soirée dans Grenade, No. 2 from Estampes
|Three Preludes from Op. 34
|Prelude No. 24 in D Minor
|Prelude No. 10 in C-sharp Minor
|Prelude No. 5 in D
|El gato (Argentine Dance)
1 February 1948, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
|Burleske in D Minor for piano and orchestra
|with the Pittsburgh Symphony, conducted by Fritz Reiner
CD 2 (79:23)
9 June 1952, WQXR Studio Broadcast, New York City
|Sonata No. 17 in B-flat, K. 570
|The Maiden and the Nightingale, No. 4 from Goyescas
|Ländler No. 7 in A-flat Minor, D. 783 (Op. 171)
|Ländler No. 12 in A-flat, D. 783 (Op. 171)
|Tricky Trumpet, No. 6 from Piano Playtime
|Beginning of third movement (Largo) from Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 58
|(with closing announcement)
15 June 1952, WQXR Studio Broadcast, New York City
|I Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum
|II Jimbo’s Lullaby
|III Serenade for the Doll
|IV The Snow is Dancing
|V The Little Shepherd
|VI Golliwogg’s Cakewalk
|Hungarian Rhapsody No. 11 in A Minor, S. 244
|Announcer interviews William Kapell
28 October 1944, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
|Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43
|with The Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy
CD 3 (73:38)
17 October 1951, Connecticut College Recital, New London, Connecticut
|Nun komm der Heiden Heiland, BWV 659
|Clair de lune
|Hungarian Rhapsody No. 11 in A Minor, S. 244
|Mazurka in C-sharp Minor, Op. 6, No. 2
|The Miller’s Dance from The Three-Cornered Hat
1947, Transcribed Radio Program, The Music Hall of Fame, New York City
|Third movement, Allegretto, from Sonata No. 10 in C, K. 330
|William Kapell recounts two humorous incidents in playing recitals
|Song Without Words in F-sharp Minor, Op. 67, No. 2
20 May 1950, NBC Broadcast, New York City
|Concerto in A Minor for four klaviers, after Vivaldi, BWV 1065
|with Rosalyn Tureck, Eugene List, and Joseph Battista, and the NBC Strings, conducted by Milton Katims
21 November 1951, Northwestern University Chamber Music Concert, Chicago
|Piano Quintet in E-flat, Op. 44
|with the Fine Arts Quartet: Leonard Sorkin and Joseph Stepansky, violins; Sheppard Lehnhoff, viola; George Sopkin, cello
|I Allegro brillante
|II In modo d’una Marcia: Un poco largamente
|III Scherzo: Molto vivace
|IV Finale: Allegro ma non troppo
Producers: Donald Manildi
Audio Conservation: Ward Marston and J. Richard Harris, and Raymond J. Edwards
Audio Conservation: CD 1, Track 18: Seth B. Winner Sound Studios, Inc.
Booklet Design: Takeshi Takahashi
Booklet Notes: Bradford Gowen, A Young Musician … Ablaze at his Task and Raymond Lewenthal, A Personal Reminiscence
Photographs: Maxwell Brown, Gregor Benko, and The International Piano Archives at Maryland
Marston would like to thank Gregor Benko, The International Piano Archives at Maryland, Eugene S. Pollioni, and Joseph Salerno for providing original audio source material.
Marston would like to thank Jon Samuels for his guidance in the production of this CD set.
This compilation was produced with the kind permission of David Kapell and Rebecca Kapell Leigh
“A YOUNG MUSICIAN . . . ABLAZE AT HIS TASK”1
The pianist heard on these recordings is a young man still in his twenties. He gave all the live performances on these CDs between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-nine, a time in his young life when he added an astonishing number of pieces to his repertoire, played concerts, and made recordings with conductors, orchestras, and chamber collaborators of the very highest rank, married and had two children, toured widely, and became internationally famous. From the age of nineteen, when he played his New York debut recital and signed a contract with the most powerful artists’ manager, Arthur Judson, this has been his life: learning, practicing, and playing at close to a non-stop rate. His intense devotion to the piano and its music, the discipline of his practice, his almost feverish passion to learn wherever and whenever he can, and his growth as an artist: these are his constant pre-occupations. From early on, a hallmark of his success has been an electricity in his playing that is inseparable from his own nervous and passionate nature. The extraordinary psychic energy and physical strength of the man are directed through single-minded work to make him both a player of staggering command and an evolving artist of surely unlimited potential.
• • • • •
In the earliest performance on these CDs the twenty-one-year-old Kapell plays Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in a radio broadcast with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Listening to this broadcast, we can hear that his interpretive ideas and performance style were fully established even at that age. A listener cannot miss Kapell’s electricity and power, elegance at the right moments, and his famously dazzling technique. The clarity of his fingerwork at high speeds is breathtaking, especially when one considers the formation of his hands. Between the third and fourth fingers of each hand the web is unusually high. Thus denied a normal amount of separation between those fingers, he has had to work inordinately hard to achieve such a degree of articulation. Building on the very thorough technical grounding he received from his devoted first teacher, Dorothea Anderson LaFollette, and many years of practicing scales, arpeggios, and Hanon exercises, his main working approach has been to practice very slowly—difficult technical passages repeated loudly and slowly with fingers lifted high—whether in new pieces or those he has performed many times.
On 29 March 1943, while he was learning both Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Kapell compared in a letter to a friend his experiences of the technical challenges of the two pieces: “The Rhapsody is remarkably simple to play, considering the overpowering effect it creates. After plowing through the Concerto, painfully, but indomitably, coming to this delightful Rhapsody is like emerging from a week of jungle, and coming to a beautiful, grassy plain. A wonderful feeling! Technically, it is ridiculously simple.”2 Surely there are very few other pianists who would agree with that assessment!
As to Kapell’s feelings about Rachmaninoff’s music in general, he had written in another letter two days earlier: “There is no other composer in whose music I have such a complete and uninhibited opportunity to ‘give the works.’ Everything I feel when I’m sad, happy, mad, clear-minded (rare!), humorous (rare) etc. all these are in his music. And an opportunity for that certain streak of violence that is in me too.”3
• • • • •
Kapell’s teacher at the Philadelphia Conservatory and then at Juilliard, the legendary Olga Samaroff, exerted a profound influence on his musical development and his career through her immeasurable personal interest in him. Indeed, he credits her with unlocking the poetry that was inside him through her use of imagery and metaphor in her teaching. It was also she who guided him, along with her other pupils, into performing unfamiliar repertoire. She encouraged her pupils to study a great deal of Bach and to explore contemporary music—both being reflected in Kapell’s growing repertoire.
In the ten selections from recitals Kapell gave in Carnegie Hall on 28 February 1945 and 21 March 1947, at ages twenty-two and twenty-four respectively, we encounter a pianist largely setting aside his already-famous firebrand virtuosity in favor of poetry, delicacy, and subtlety. His determination to acquire mastery of widely-differing musical styles is apparent in his programming choices for these recitals, as he presents Baroque, Classic, Romantic, Impressionistic, and recent contemporary music.
To hear a Bach suite, and a rather obscure one at that, was an uncommon concert-hall event in 1947. Kapell had already programmed this “miscellaneous” one in A Minor on his Town Hall debut recital in 1941, and he has since returned to it frequently. In this performance he draws us in to hear the elegant conversations among the contrapuntal voices. This is beautifully expressive, modern Bach-playing in its purity of tone and immaculate textural clarity, and it is informed by a clear understanding of structure and detail. If Kapell continues to play more Bach in this way, might he become one of our most important Bach players, like his fellow Samaroff pupil Rosalyn Tureck?
In Mozart’s Sonata in C, K. 330 (like the Bach Suite, seemingly a Kapell favorite), the pianist plays with the delicacy and, again, clarity that befits this ingratiating work. Some might quibble with tempos that push the fastest notes into high-speed display, but graciousness wins the day.
The Chopin mazurka and nocturne that follow are indisputable gifts of magic. In the tender and exotic mazurka with its sinuous lines and springing rhythms, Kapell compels our ears to listen and our spirit to bathe in beauty. One has only to hear the opening phrase of the nocturne to recognize a young master of Chopin’s idiom. Across the top of the page of Kapell’s score, Mme Samaroff wrote in a commanding hand, “Look out for cold weightless tone at the end of phrases.” Many of the tones in this performance sound buoyant, but none is cold!
The Schumann Romance, Brahms Intermezzo, and Debussy’s “La soirée dans Grenade” receive loving performances guided by line and color.
A novelty item is “El gato” (The Cat) by Argentine composer Emilio Napolitano, used by Kapell as an encore a number of times in this period. Presumably it is one of the scores by native composers that he brought back from his 1946 tour of South America. Though he seems to play very little music of this kind, the pianist is clearly at home in it.
Shostakovich’s Twenty-Four Preludes, Op. 34, had been in existence for less than ten years when, at Olga Samaroff’s instigation, Kapell played three of them on his 1941 debut recital. This was the beginning of his widely-publicized involvement with new Soviet music that reached an early peak when he learned the six-year-old Khachaturian concerto in 1942 and subsequently played it so frequently throughout the United States that he came to be identified with it even before recording it in 1946 with Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Since his spectacular success with Khachaturian’s concerto, he has added concertos by Prokofieff (No. 3) and Shostakovich (No. 1) to his repertoire, as well as Prokofieff’s seventh sonata. (He was performing the sonata within a year of the release of Horowitz’s 1945 recording.) Three weeks after he played the group of Shostakovich preludes at Carnegie Hall, Kapell recorded two of them (Nos. 10 and 5) for RCA, but substituted for the quirky and humorous No. 24 the tragedy-laden No. 14 in E-flat Minor.
The final item in this selection of ten was composed for Kapell, who played it on his 28 February 1945 recital almost as soon as it was written. This Toccata Ostinato by Robert Palmer is an expertly-written piece perfectly tailored for Kapell. The ostinato is a series of thirteen eighth-notes in broken triads arranged in heavily accented groups of 3+3+2+3+2. On top of that churning energy are driving melodies with frequent “blue notes.” The result is an exuberant, American-sounding piece that points the way toward Kapell’s growing interest in American music.4
• • • • •
From 1947 comes a short “Music Hall of Fame” broadcast with Kapell playing two short pieces, and in between responding in good humor to the announcer’s less-than-profound questions about his career. Kapell plays first the third movement of Mozart’s Sonata in C, K. 330, the one he played on his Carnegie Hall recital in the same year, and, in fact, the only Mozart sonata in his repertoire at that time. In this broadcast, his performance feels more settled than the Carnegie Hall one does. It is slightly slower, more varied in expression, and warmer in tone. To close the broadcast, Kapell plays Mendelssohn’s “Song Without Words,” Op. 67, No. 2. This is one of the composer’s “elfin-like scherzo” pieces, and it is matched perfectly by Kapell’s delicacy, elegance, and insouciant spirit.
• • • • •
The 1948 broadcast of the wonderful but pianistically-thorny and under-performed Burleske by Richard Strauss takes us to an unhappy moment in Kapell’s performing life. Asked by conductor Fritz Reiner to learn the work for concerts with the Pittsburgh Symphony on 30 January and 1 February, Kapell learned it from scratch in three to four days and played it on the first half of the program along with the Shostakovich First Concerto on the second half. There is no report of how he felt about his Shostakovich performance, but he was distinctly unhappy with the Burleske. Therefore, the performance has not been heard since the broadcast.
(Author’s note: Because of his strong negative feelings about the performance, the pianist’s widow, Anna Lou (Kapell) Dehavenon maintained life-long opposition to publication of this broadcast, as did her son and daughter after her death in 2012. After extended reflection, David Kapell and Rebecca Kapell Leigh did give their permission on 21 March 2016, since another Kapell performance of the Burleske will never become available. Thanks to their kindness, it is published on these CDs for the first time.)
The Burleske is music of youth—Strauss wrote it at twenty-one, Eugen d’Albert premiered it at twenty-six, and here is Kapell at twenty-five responding in full measure to its bravado, bravura, muscularity, tenderness, sentiment, and wit. Listening, one would never suspect that he was upset with it. It is a gift to have this.
As to the Shostakovich concerto on the same concert, a recording of that performance does not survive. Happily, there is one from 1945 of Kapell playing it with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
• • • • •
Two years after Olga Samaroff’s death in 1948, four of her young former students gathered in a broadcast studio to perform in her memory Bach’s Concerto for four klaviers (his transcription of Vivaldi’s Four-Violin Concerto, RV 580). Though an undeniably curious work, this piece served well for a group tribute to Samaroff and her devotion to Bach’s music. The “NBC Strings,” presumably a group of NBC Symphony players chosen for this performance, made up the orchestra (a string quartet multiplied) and conductor Milton Katims presided over the assembled company.
Occasional ensemble slippage suggests that full rehearsals were minimal, but the pianists are tightly synchronized among themselves. To the ear, there seems to be one piano that is given many solos and some especially brilliant passages, thus taking precedence over the others. In reality, the solo turns are shared among all four instruments, and it is the remarkable unanimity of style and technique among Joseph Battista, William Kapell, Eugene List, and Rosalyn Tureck that fools the listener into supposing that all solos belong to one pianist. It is futile to try to determine which piano is played by Kapell—a tribute to all four pianists, and to their former teacher.
• • • • •
Kapell has played chamber music since his student days, and in spite of the demands of his solo career he has continued to do so, and at the highest level. He has recorded three duo sonatas (one each with William Primrose, Jascha Heifetz, and Edmund Kurtz). This 1951 private recording of the Schumann Quintet with the Fine Arts Quartet is, so far, our only recorded opportunity to hear him in a larger chamber ensemble.
For Kapell, the Schumann Quintet is a well-seasoned work; earlier in 1951 he performed it with both the Juilliard and Budapest Quartets. (Note again the level of musicians wanting to collaborate with this young fellow. That alone marks him among the elect.) To hear this masterpiece performed with such polish and élan is to realize again why it is so well loved and often played.
• • • • •
October 1951 was a brutally cold month in New London, Connecticut, and to judge by the amount of coughing during Kapell’s Connecticut College recital on 17 October, the weather was hard on the health of the population. Perhaps the coughs are a sign of people’s determination to come out anyway to hear this phenomenal young man play.
Kapell begins his recital in a spirit of devotional solemnity as he gives a moving delivery of one of Bach’s most beautiful chorale preludes for organ, “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” (“Now comes the Gentiles’ Savior”), in the transcription by Ferruccio Busoni.
One can detect an unexpected bridge between Bach and Debussy as Kapell begins the Suite bergamasque. The Prelude starts with a full-textured gesture of announcement in the first measure, answered by a fantasy-like solo in the second—the whole rather suggestive of many a moment in Bach’s toccatas—and then seamlessly turns French in measure three. An unlikely transition has been accomplished.
The three remaining movements are vividly realized: Kapell’s restless energy and deep lyricism both inform the Minuet; “Clair de lune” is regular in rhythm and diaphanous in sound; and the Passepied dances with “the simplicity, gaiety, clarity of touch” that the pianist has called “all qualities which are native in me. . . .”5
With the exception of “La soirée dans Grenade” from Debussy’s Estampes, played by Kapell in Carnegie Hall in 1947, this performance of the Suite bergamasque is our earliest record of his involvement with Debussy’s music. Since both this suite and the one broadcast in 1952 (Children’s Corner) only hint at the Impressionism with which Debussy is so identified, we can eagerly anticipate the day when Kapell returns more fully to Debussy’s impressionistic pieces—Images or some of the preludes, for instance. Knowing his playing as we do now, how can we not be eager to hear him move into this part of the literature?
Liszt’s Eleventh Hungarian Rhapsody, heard also on these discs in his WQXR radio broadcast on 16 June 1952, receives a brilliant and poetic performance in exactly the ways that audiences have come to expect from Kapell: technically and musically electrifying, colorful, and eloquent. One feels that he has given a summation of what this piece is about.
Kapell has shown already that he is at home in a Chopin mazurka. In this one, C-sharp Minor, Op. 6, No. 2, the varying moods of brooding, sprightliness, impetuousness, and gaiety are presented with a Rubinstein-like naturalness.
Writing during his 1946 tour of South America, Kapell voiced his thrill at his audiences’ reactions in Buenos Aires. “It seems that my temperament, which has been compared by everybody to Rubinstein’s, is the thing they like.” Later in the same letter he writes: “I am very happy for one other thing. I am considered in Argentina an authentic player of Spanish music.”6 His performance here of “The Miller’s Dance,” from Falla’s The Three-Cornered Hat, shows us why. Its élan, grace, and steely rhythmic fire put the exclamation point on that judgment.
• • • • •
On 2, 9, and 16 June, 1952, William Kapell “visited” the broadcast studios of New York’s WQXR to play thirty-minute live-broadcast recitals. We have the second and third of those recitals, the last of which contains a fairly lengthy interview with the obviously ailing pianist answering questions about musical career concerns of the day.
In the 9 June broadcast, we hear him in another Mozart sonata, this time the B-flat, K. 570. His treatment of the lyrical counterpoint in the first movement, the breadth and intimacy of the second, and the impishness of the third make this a performance to savor. Granados’s “The Maiden and the Nightingale” from Goyescas receives a reading in which Kapell’s customary fine-chiseled tone seems at first to threaten the sensuousness of this piece’s nakedly romantic intimacy, until, swathed in rubatos and a kaleidoscope of colors, everything mixes together into a marvelously satisfying performance. The rest of the program gives us two Ländler by Schubert and an irresistible novelty number, “The Tricky Trumpet” from Abram Chasins’s set of seven student pieces called Piano Playtime. The piece and the performance are as coy and sophisticated as it gets.
The broadcast seems to be over at this point, but after a pause Kapell suddenly launches into the third movement (Largo) of Chopin’s B Minor Sonata, with its stentorian start that melts quickly into poetry. We hear forty-five measures of beautiful playing before the announcer, Joseph Campanella, begins to speak over the continuing music and gives the sign-off of the broadcast before the movement is finished.
The next WQXR recital of 16 June consists of two works, Debussy’s The Children’s Corner, and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 11 in A Minor, followed by the interview mentioned above. A highlight among the Debussy pieces is a rippling performance of the opening “Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum.” In an article Kapell wrote for the December 1950 issue of Etude magazine he revealed, “In practicing for evenness of tone in [this piece], I went back to the first study of Hanon.” (He also wrote, “Scales, arpeggios and Hanon, practiced daily over the years, make one’s fingers ready for any mechanical demands.”) Another highlight is his marvelously textured presentation of the delicate and eventful “The Snow is Dancing.”
As other commentators do, the announcer for these broadcasts frequently refers to Kapell as a “brilliant” pianist. His performance here of Liszt’s Eleventh Hungarian Rhapsody gives all the justification ever needed for the repeated use of that adjective. Compared with his “brilliant” performance a few months earlier at Connecticut College, this one adds the virtues of greater warmth and spontaneity. Perhaps Kapell felt somehow more at ease in this studio on this day than he felt in New London.
• • • • •
By 1952, Kapell is riding the crest of a sensational wave of admiration and artistic achievement. Still, he has a remarkably clear view of himself for such a young and successful performer: he is intent on doing whatever degree of work and study are necessary for him to become a great artist. In keeping with that perspective is his attitude toward making recordings. He believes that recording a piece of music should mark the termination of an important period of his growth with that work, and that since he is in feverish pursuit of his own realization as a pianist and a musician he feels no urgency about recording anything yet that he doesn’t sense to be absolutely ready. There will be plenty of time for that later on.
• • • • •
© Bradford Gowen, 2016
The personal information in these notes is taken from a 1983 interview between the author and Anna Lou Dehavenon. Quotations are from materials at IPAM.
Bradford Gowen is a pianist widely acclaimed for his performances which incorporate contemporary and traditional repertoire. He won the first Kennedy Center/Rockefeller Foundation Competition for Excellence in the Performance of American Music. He teaches at the University of Maryland School of Music.
1 Taken from an undated Kapell review by Olin Downes of the New York Times, used in a Columbia Artists promotional yer in the 1940s.
2 Letter to Solveig Lunde, March 29, 1943 (Kapell Collection, International Piano Archives at Maryland).
3 Ibid., March 27, 1943.
4 Robert Palmer (1915-2010), composer of more than ninety works, studied at Eastman, was a member of Aaron Copland’s first composition class at Tanglewood in 1940, and founded America’s first doctoral program in composition at Cornell University, where he taught for nearly forty years.
5 Letter to Solveig Lunde, “late September, 1946” (Kapell Collection, International Piano Archives at Maryland).
William Kapell: A Personal Reminiscence
The late American pianist Raymond Lewenthal (1923-1988) was, like Kapell, a pupil of Olga Samaroff during the 1940s. This article was written on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of Kapell’s death, but it has not been previously published. It appears here in a slightly edited form.
On the afternoon of 29 October 1953, I was slowly making my way up Madison Avenue in New York City, returning to my apartment after a brief, labored walk. I was weak as a kitten, recovering from a horrible incident. Three months earlier, on a bright summer evening, 3 August, strolling across Central Park to the West Side to visit friends who lived directly across town from me, I was suddenly set upon and beaten by a gang of some twenty thugs armed with clubs and sticks. The doctor who read the x-rays at the receiving hospital to which I was taken declared there were no broken bones. I was moved to another hospital where it was discovered that, among other injuries, seven bones had been broken in my hands and arms…a terrifying experience for anyone, but particularly for a pianist with a budding career. No one can imagine the fears of that night when my whole life, all I had worked for so many years, was annihilated in a few brief seconds.
As I came up Madison Avenue on 29 October on one of my first solo convalescent walks, I suddenly thought of Willy. “I must call him, he should be back from Australia by now.” The thought brightened my spirits; Kapell had been unfailingly kind to me and encouraging and helpful, and now I was sorely in need of some encouragement. When I entered my apartment, the voice of a news commentator on the radio came out at me: “There has been a crash outside of San Francisco of a plane coming from Australia. All passengers killed. Among those on board was the pianist, William Kapell.” I probably aged ten years that day. All I could say over and over was, “All that work, all that work…” For above all, Willy was an incredible worker, unendingly developing and honing that great, wonderful talent of his.
There was nothing of the glib wunderkind syndrome about Willy. He worked prodigiously, and said so, unlike some artists who prefer to give the impression that their talent is so God-given that they seldom have to practice, and equally unlike some others who, indeed, do have to practice an hour or two a day to keep the standard repertoire in their fingers. It has always seemed to me that a violinist who can keep the Tchaikovsky Concerto going with little or no practice could challenge himself with the Ysaÿe Six Unaccompanied Sonatas, and that the pianist who finds the Beethoven “Waldstein” Sonata a bed of roses might discover a few thorns in Godowsky’s Studies on the Chopin Etudes. It is, I think, precisely at this point where the challenge occurs, the point of friction where the real sparks begin to fly. That Willy was enormously gifted for music and for the piano goes without saying, and yet he had obstacles to overcome. Anna Lou, his widow, once pointed out to me that Willy’s hand was unusual. It was square, very muscular and strong, somewhat typical of the kind of hand which Josef Hofmann had (though not as small), and which is thought by many to be the best kind of piano hand—in spite of the fact that Chopin, Liszt, Busoni, and Rachmaninoff had long, slender fingers. The four fingers of Willy’s hands were of almost equal length, which helped him to achieve great evenness and speed. However, his thumb was short, which caused him anxiety and problems. Passing under with evenness in scales and passages demanded hours of work. Also, there was a web of flesh between his fourth and fifth fingers which reached almost to the length of the lower finger joint. At one time he even consulted a surgeon about an operation to cut the web (wisely, the doctor refused). These were great physical handicaps which Willy worked prodigiously and constantly to overcome—day after day he spent eight to twelve hours slaving away, with the cigarette stubs mounting higher and higher in the ashtray. It is probably not coincidental that light workers often have a cold aloofness and limited commitment to their work, a glib facility about their playing. The greater the temperament, the harder it may be to control it—and the control must be dearly bought. The artist with lesser temperament or “nerves” usually doesn’t have to work as hard. The Maria Callases and the Vladimir Horowitzes, on the other hand, have all worked demonically and there is an intensity in their music which is seldom found in the two-hour-a-day brand of virtuoso. Even if Willy had had no difficulties whatsoever to overcome, he would never have spent a mere hour or two at his work—it was too much a part of him.
Had he been born in another age, perhaps in another place, he may well have been a national hero after his death, or before if he had but lived a bit longer. I say this because during his last few months there was an ever-increasing strength in his playing—a difference which can be sensed in the few live performances that have surfaced from his final Australian tour. Still, Willy’s recorded legacy, when heard in toto, more than reveals his splendid qualities: integrity, a sense of beauty, and a fabulous perfection of pianism.
I vividly recall Kapell’s New York recital in Town Hall during the season before he died. I have never heard the piano sound like that—there was a beauty of tone, a timbre that was unique, absolutely personal, and I remember having told him so backstage afterward. Willy was one of those creatures who glides briefly across the earth; the only two other artists I would mention in his artistic company are two who have utterly captured my imagination by the strength and individuality of their musical personalities: Vladimir Horowitz and Maria Callas. I have listened to most of the great artists of our day and they have each given us something precious, but these three have given me the most, incomparably the most. There are qualities in these three artists that can’t be captured on records, wonderful as those are—only a personal artistic confrontation with them gives another dimension. Willy had a quality which has lately come to be called “charisma”—a world as old as the Greeks, but not much used in Willy’s day—but meaning somewhat the same as the then-prevalent “personality,” but having more allure and exoticism about it than that Hollywood-fatigued word. Willy really burst onto the music scene in a big way when he played the Khachaturian concerto in Boston with Koussevitsky. Willy and the Khachaturian were made for each other. There was an exoticism about Willy’s appearance—the triangular face, the black hair and the intense, dark, glowering eyes—an electricity and immediacy about his stage presence. I remember him rushing onto the stage of Carnegie Hall to play the Prokofieff 3rd concerto with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. He was like a panther released from his cage. I noticed that his fingers were all taped up—he had literally practiced the skin right off of them.
All public figures, artists as well as politicians, have to face criticism as part of their professional life. But they also have to put up with insults and attacks from cranks—a brand of rudeness, impertinence, and partisanship which proclaims itself under the guise of criticism but which has nothing to do with enlightened evaluation. Artists, creators, and interpreters have to have souls and hearts as tender and sensitive as butterflies’ antennae—but in order to survive, those souls and hearts must be concealed within a rhino’s hide. Willy didn’t suffer fools gladly—and he was a fighter. He was a young man determined to fulfill his destiny. He could be brusque when confronted by stupidity. He fought with managers and critics who didn’t realize his value. No doubt he knew his own value, but he was an artist and a very sensitive human being, and all sensitive people need reassurance. For such a person, one sour voice in the morning paper can obliterate the still-ringing cheers of three thousand people from the night before. And there were sour voices in the morning papers in Australia. Willy died while still smarting under their sting. Willy was a strong personality, and strong personalities inspire partisanship feelings of love and hate. Willy had inspired great enthusiasm in his Australian audiences, but he had also aroused some dislike among certain newspaper critics, particularly one in Sydney who attacked Willy viciously, showing both bias and ignorance in his manner. Willy reacted violently. How can we expect a man who responds to the emotions of the music he played with such intensity to be blind and indifferent to personal attacks which he felt were unjustified and not based on sound artistic knowledge and instinct? Willy was furious, and announced in the papers that he would never return to Australia—and, as we know, he never did.
But aside from the negative and bitter feelings Willy was harboring, every great artist has endured similar feelings for similar reasons. Willy’s active mind, however, was looking forward with typical enthusiasm to two projects to which he was returning in the States. It was his desire to be as well-rounded a musician as possible, and in the nine years between his first recording session in December, 1944, to his last, in March, 1953, he had made three albums of chamber music: one each with Jascha Heifetz, William Primrose, and Edmund Kurtz. He wanted to expand the range of his chamber music recordings and an RCA project to record trio literature with Kapell, Heifetz, and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky had been scheduled upon Willy’s return from Australia. Tragically, that project was never realized.
Even more tragic, to my mind, was the loss incurred to music by Willy’s not being able to implement the second of his two projects: he was coming back to teach at the Juilliard School of Music. I can personally vouch for the immensity of that loss, for I know how Willy could teach. In 1951, while I was preparing for my first Carnegie Hall recital, I played for him twice—only twice. But I learned more from him about piano playing in those two afternoons than I ever learned from anyone before or since. I do not propose to go into a technical discussion here of what I learned from him. However, I will state that from what I observed of Kapell in two afternoons, he absolutely had the qualities of a very great teacher. To put it simply: he knew, and he knew how to explain what he knew. And most importantly, he had to explain what he knew. The concatenation of these three qualities is rare in a great performer. There are those who don’t really know what they are doing—it is all intuitive. Therefore, they can’t explain even if they wish to. Then there are also those who know what they are doing but can’t explain lucidly. And finally, there are those who know, and can explain, but will not; they don’t want to share their secrets. Willy knew exactly what he was doing. Besides studying formally with two teachers, Dorothy LaFollette and Olga Samaroff, he had sought advice from Horowitz, Artur Rubinstein, José Iturbi, Artur Schnabel, Rudolf Serkin, and others. His analytical mind clarified, formulated, and synthesized the things they told and showed him with the things he found out for himself. He was able to explain and demonstrate things logically and simply. But, and this is the quality that is perhaps the rarest: he was willing, wanted, and had to explain. He needed to give in order to receive.
By the time I came to study with Olga Samaroff in 1946, Willy had left her class and was concertizing widely. I first met him briefly in Los Angeles in 1945, backstage after a rehearsal of the Khachaturian concerto. In the ensuing years, I saw him occasionally, usually after performances, but we never exchanged more than a few words. One day, it must have been in 1951, I was sitting in a restaurant at the Los Angeles airport, talking with a friend who had come to see me off. I was in the midst of a tour and going on to Portland for a concert. I noticed Willy sitting by himself at the counter and said hello. We found we were traveling on the same plane as far as San Francisco; in his hand he had the rolled-up score of the Schumann quintet which he was going north to play. During the flight we had a pleasant talk—I remember I had a cold and the pain in my ears was acute as the pressure in the cabin changed when we were coming in for a landing—Willy was very sympathetic about it. Only two years later, approaching that same airport in San Francisco, Willy’s plane from Australia crashed.
A few months after this airborne chat with Willy, I was beginning to prepare a program for Carnegie Hall (by bizarre coincidence, Willy’s death took place exactly two years to the day after that concert, which was on 29 October 1951). I called Willy and asked if I could come and play some of the pieces for him. I went up to his house, which was directly across from Horowitz’s on East 94th Street. I played a slow sonata of Scarlatti and the Liszt Sonata for him and he played a piece of Falla and two movements of the Chopin B-flat Minor Sonata—which was prominently featured in his Australian programs of 1953.
Then Willy began to talk; first some strong compliments, the memory of which has bolstered me in many adverse hours. Then some criticisms, explained calmly, simply, along with some highly important principles of piano playing that no one had ever shown me. He saw immediately what I needed, and went straight to the problems. He patiently showed me the things I urgently needed to know and told me how to put these principles into action, to practice, and then told me to come back in a couple of weeks. I went home and tried to apply what he had shown me, but the ideas were new and I wasn’t convinced of them. I played for him again about three weeks later—he was very busy with his own work, but asked me to come up at three in the afternoon, explaining that the engineers from RCA would be coming later to make some test recordings. I again played part of the Liszt Sonata for him. He gently asked me not to play too loudly, so that the piano wouldn’t be put out of tune for the recordings. I was very touched that he took the time to see me just before an important recording session. He patiently reiterated and reinforced the things he had told me at the earlier meeting.
Over the summer and fall, I gradually began to probe into what he had told me and I realized that he was absolutely right in everything he had said. My playing moved ahead with a giant leap, and in all the years since I have never found any cause to refute anything he showed me. He had opened my eyes, and I have always felt that I could have profited further from his wonderful gift for teaching. I didn’t play for Willy any more, as he was away for long periods of time and I was hesitant to impose when he was in town. I saw him backstage at his last New York recital and he told me to call him and arrange to meet at a recording session he was having at Town Hall on 17 March. Because it was St. Patrick’s day, I had battled the traffic and crowds in a frantic effort to get downtown, and thus was late and missed Willy. I spoke to him twice more on the phone, before he was to leave on tour—first to Israel and France, then on to Australia. Willy told me to come up at eleven on the morning of 18 April, but when I arrived, I found the house was deserted. Whether Willy in his hectic existence had forgotten our appointment, or whether he had to leave ahead of schedule, I never knew—because I never saw him again.
I shall always think of Willy as a close friend. My acquaintance with him actually was tenuous, my meetings with him few and usually brief, but he changed my life. I have always wanted to express my gratitude publicly—I wrote a letter to the New York Times when Willy was killed, but it was not published. During my tour of Australia in 1972, I played the Chopin Funeral March Sonata on one of my several programs, dedicating it to his memory. It was an eerie feeling walking onto the same stages in the same halls where Willy had played and, as it turned out, playing the same work—when I made up my own programs for Australia I was not aware that Willy had played this sonata on his last tour there.
In the years following his death, the piano world witnessed the arrival of many ambitious new virtuosi as well as the ill-advised deletion of many of the Kapell recordings. Neither of these events, it seemed, could prevent a near-legendary aura from surrounding Kapell’s name. Finally, after a frustratingly long delay, his complete recorded legacy was restored to circulation, and there also appeared some newly-discovered, revelatory live performances. Along with this permanent documentation, we have the certainty that Willy’s selfless, relentless dedication to the highest artistic ideals will remain a compelling inspiration to all pianists. His place in the pantheon of great musicians is secure. William Kapell will not be forgotten.
©Raymond Lewenthal, 2016
More than six decades have passed since the tragic death of William Kapell in 1953 at the age of thirty-one, yet his name continues to resonate among a large group of worldwide music enthusiasts. By today’s standards, Kapell’s discography of commercial recordings is rather small, but recordings of concerts have come to light, helping to perpetuate interest in him and enhance his legendary reputation as one of America’s greatest pianists. Whenever new Kapell material appears there is an immediate buzz among “pianophiles”, and particular interest is especially generated when new repertoire becomes available. Many of the performances presented here are additions to the Kapell discography, including several notable examples of new repertoire. We are grateful to Donald Manildi, curator of the International Piano Archives at the University of Maryland, for his generosity in permitting us to include material from the Kapell archives in the IPAM collection.
CD one comprises selections from Carnegie Hall recitals of 1945 and 1947, recorded by the Carnegie Hall Recording Company on twelve-inch lacquer-coated discs at a nominal speed of 78rpm. The discs were given by Kapell’s widow, Anna Lou (Kapell) Dehavenon, to the International Piano Archives in the early 1970s. Many of the discs from these recitals had been lost before the remaining ones were given to IPA, and sadly, major works such as the Brahms 3rd sonata and the Prokofieff seventh sonata have not survived, except for a few short passages that are not substantial enough to be included here.
In 1987 I remastered these recordings, and all but one of the selections presented here were released on a limited edition LP produced by the International Piano Archives at the University of Maryland. (Napolitano’s “El gato” appears here for the first time.) I have made new transfers from the original discs, in the hope that advances in technology will have improved upon my earlier work of almost thirty years ago. I found the discs to be still in good condition, except for the one containing sides two and four of the Mozart sonata, which was no longer playable; in the interim the lacquer coating had crumbled to dust. For those sides, I had to use the 1987 analog tape transfer.
CD one concludes with Kapell’s only performance of Richard Strauss’s Burleske for piano and orchestra, taken from a Pittsburgh Symphony broadcast. As mentioned in Bradford Gowen’s essay in this booklet, Kapell had to learn the Burleske in less than a week, and was not pleased with his performance of the work. For this reason, Anna Lou Dehavenon was adamant about not permitting it to be published. But with the passage of so many years and with Kapell admirers wanting to hear the performance, his children, David and Rebecca, generously gave their permission for us to issue it for the first time, with the understanding that the circumstances surrounding the performance be explained. Those of us who have auditioned the recording feel that it is certainly worthy of issue and quite a fine performance. The discs of this broadcast were part of the Kapell family collection, but for many years, it seemed that only one of the discs could be found. About ten years ago, noted audio engineer and friend of the Kapell family, Jon Samuels, convinced Mrs. Dehavenon to search more thoroughly for the second disc. Somehow, she located it, and we are particularly thankful to Jon Samuels for rescuing the performance. The discs are now part of the IPAM collection and have been painstakingly remastered by audio engineer, Seth Winner, who has graciously given his permission for us to include his fine restoration. These discs are far from pristine in condition, and Mr. Winner has used his considerable technical skill to remove obtrusive clicks, pops, and thumps that afflict these discs while never compromising the actual sound of the performance.
CD two contains two half-hour broadcasts, given by Kapell over New York’s radio station WQXR, which until recently were utterly unknown to anyone. Last year, a large collection of professionally-recorded tapes was discovered by the researcher and collector, Eugene Pollioni. The two Kapell broadcasts were among the tapes in that collection, and were generously loaned to us by Mr. Pollioni. The CD concludes with Kapell’s earliest known performance of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. I recently remastered the discs of this broadcast, which are also part of the IPAM collection.
The third CD begins with a portion of a recital given at Connecticut College that has hitherto remained unpublished. The concert was recorded in the hall on 33rpm lacquer discs, but the discs are now completely deteriorated; fortunately IPAM has a tape transfer made earlier, when the discs were still playable. The original recording suffers from noticeable pitch wow, but this flaw can now be corrected by recent advances in digital technology. The Connecticut College selections are followed by Kapell’s 1947 appearance on a program called “Music Hall of Fame” and a 1950 NBC broadcast of Bach’s Concerto in A Minor for Four Klaviers. We are grateful to Joseph Salerno for providing sources for these items. Our compilation concludes with a virtually unknown recording of Schumann’s Piano Quintet made on a professional tape recorder during a concert at Northwestern University. Although the sound is somewhat diffuse and unbalanced, how fortunate we are after sixty-five years, to be able to hear Kapell’s only recorded performance of this work. In remastering the material on this set, we have made every effort to render the recordings as listenable as possible without compromising the sound of the original sources used. The pitch of each selection has been checked and corrected if warranted.