P1259. WILLIAM KAPELL - Three First Releases: Nocturne in E-flat Major, Op. 55, No. 2 (Chopin) (unissued ‘test’ recording); w.Rodzinski Cond. NYPO: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (Rachmaninoff), 28 Oct., 1945, Carnegie Hall; w.Richard Burgin Cond. Boston Symphony Orchestra (21 March, 1953, Symphony Hall) & Ormandy Cond. Philadelphia Orchestra (22 Feb., 1947, Academy of Music): Piano Concerto #3 in C (Prokofiev) (2 performances). (U.K.) JSP Records JSP684. - 788065608422
“The shocking death in a plane crash in 1953 of the 31-year-old William Kapell robbed the music world of one of the greatest pianists just when his career and musical maturity were continuing to develop. This wonderful disc of three live performances gives us a unique opportunity to witness that growth, particularly because it contains two performances of one of Kapell’s specialties, the Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto. The Philadelphia performance was given on February 22, 1947, when the pianist was 24; the Boston performance dates from March 21, 1953, seven months before his death. There is a world of difference between the two, and it goes well beyond the differing conducting styles of Eugene Ormandy and Richard Burgin (the latter a much under-appreciated Boston Symphony concertmaster and assistant conductor, whose thrilling Mahler Second has circulated among collectors for decades [C1399, for Mahler 3rd]).
Kapell first came to the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody in 1943, playing it shortly after the composer’s death, a performance during which it was reported that the pianist was in tears. Afterwards he played the piece with some frequency and made a studio recording with Fritz Reiner. In addition there is a live Ormandy-led recording (Marston 53021 [P1247]) from 1944, a year before the present release, a New York reading with Rodzinski. The two performances are similar; Ormandy was a terrific accompanist, as was Rodzinski. There is perhaps just a bit crisper, more intense feeling to the New York account. Both are good-sounding broadcasts, although the New York is just a touch better balanced. Kapell finds a way to give equal weight to the lyrical beauty and virtuoso fireworks in the score. The program notes indicate that this particular performance has been previously available from an inferior sounding source. I am not familiar with the earlier release, but what we have here is remarkably satisfying sound for a 1945 broadcast.
The two performances of Prokofiev’s Third Concerto are both stunning - we would be fortunate to have just one of them. If I had to have only one, it would be the Boston. Part of the reason is that Kapell kept maturing and growing. But I also assign some of the responsibility for the flair and flexibility of this reading to Burgin, whose work has long been admired by the limited number of connoisseurs who are familiar with it. The Ormandy performance finds Kapell at his most brilliant, however, with impeccably clean textures, blinding clarity and accuracy at the highest speeds, and fierce rhythmic snap and drive. While these same qualities are present under Burgin, they are married to a lyricism and delicacy that is unique. To give one example, at 7:36 in the second movement, Kapell finds a huge range of colors merged with dynamics that fluctuate between pianissimo and mezzo piano. It takes a brilliant imagination and bravura technique to create such a variety of sounds in such a limited range. In many ways the lyricism and beauty that Kapell expresses in this performance come closer than most pianists to Prokofiev’s own recording of the concerto. Burgin adds his own imaginative touches, and the Boston Symphony is at its considerable best.
The Chopin Nocturne is a gorgeous bonus. It is apparently a previously unissued test recording, perhaps made by RCA. We have two live Kapell performances of this Nocturne, both from his final year, 1953. The first is from a Frick Collection recital on March 1, the second is a souvenir of his Australian tour (his plane crashed while he was returning from this tour, in fact). The value of the new recording is its studio quality, giving us the full glamour of the Kapell tone, not to mention his remarkable way with shaping a line.
What distinguishes this release, in addition to the pianist’s genius, is its overall technical quality. The remastering has been done at the highest level, to the credit of both Seth B. Winner and John H. Haley of Harmony Restorations. (We also owe some credit to the original broadcast engineers.) The disc comes with informative notes about Kapell and this repertoire, and about the technical aspect of the restoration....a quite extraordinary document of a uniquely great American pianist."
- Henry Fogel, FANFARE
“Once more, restoration engineers John H. Haley and Seth B. Winner collaborate to restore rare recordings by America’s first home-spun piano virtuoso [who] had been trained by Rudolf Serkin and Artur Schnabel. William Kapell (1922-1953), was tragically taken from us in a plane crash as his flight approached San Francisco Airport 29 October 1953.
A fabulous keyboard technique combined with a volcanic temperament made Kapell a natural exponent of the Romantic tradition [Kapell] championed, and his exploring, adventurous musicianship had embraced many works in the Classical and Contemporary traditions as well.
The rendition of Rachmaninoff’s RHAPSODY ON A THEME OF PAGANINI (28 October 1945) with Artur Rodzinski proves fleet and dynamically driven, completely down-playing anything like sentimentality, even in the famous 18th Variation that has imprinted immortality on the work itself.
The two readings of the Prokofiev Concerto #3 bring out diverse aspects of the music. Eugene Ormandy leads the work which he never commercially recorded in Philadelphia (22 February 1947, made for the Voice of America) with a degree of rhythmic gravitas in the opening movement and ensuing Theme and Variations calculated to emphasize the lyrical elements of Prokofiev’s instrumental bravura as much as the sheer technical velocity of all principals. In his comprehensive liner notes, Jon Samuels attests to five surviving incarnations of Kapell’s approach to this concerto. I know of the Dorati version made for commercial RCA; the Stokowski from New York appeared on Music & Arts; and now these two… so the last will be news to me.
The muscularity of Kapell’s second movement proffers the musical character that often defines him in our collective image: robust, titanic, concentrated, lyrically alert, with no sag in his active bass lines. Typically, the dynamic thrust of Kapell’s changes in tempo exactly captures the ‘enfant terrible’ momentum Prokofiev exploited in his own virtuoso persona. Kapell’s concept for the 'Allegro non troppo' finale remained incredibly consistent for the Ormandy performance (without audience) and for his appearance with Richard Burgin and the Boston Symphony (21 March 1953). The hard-driven, percussive propulsion suddenly softens for Prokofiev’s lyric outpouring, persuasively rendered by the winds and strings of both orchestras. The last pages with both Ormandy and Burgin become deliciously manic on a level I already know from the Stokowski version and various readings by other pianists who played the piece with Dimitri Mitropoulos.
The collaboration with Richard Burgin sounds more streamlined than that with Ormandy, but within the savagely brisk first movement a degree of rhythmic flexibility reveals itself where Ormandy retarded the line….The sheer motor power of the runs and broken-chord phraseology proceeds seamlessly, with jaw-dropping accuracy and dynamic impact. Note, too, the crisp bowing from the BSO strings. Kapell’s entry in the second movement reaches a peak and dissolves into champagne bubbles. The trumpet part (Roger Voisin, likely) figures prominently in the early variations that mark some brilliant filigree in Kapell, in piercing, good sound. The last movement will blister your ears with its flamethrower effects."
- Gary Lemco, AUDIOPHILE AUDITION, 29 July, 2017
“William Kapell was one of the most promising American pianists of the postwar generation, producing a few recordings that have attained legendary status after his untimely death.
He studied in New York with Dorothea Anderson la Follett, and then at the Philadelphia Conservatory with Olga Samaroff, and then went to the Juilliard School when she relocated there. He won the Philadelphia Orchestra's youth competition and the Naumberg Award in 1941. He débuted in New York through his prize from the Naumberg Foundation.
A national recital career quickly developed, leading to a recording contract with RCA. One of his enthusiasms was for the recently composed Piano Concerto in D flat major by Soviet composer Aram Khachaturian, which he frequently played. Because it is an extroverted and flashy work, he gained a reputation as a specialist in such music. His recorded legacy shows that he performed in the appropriate style from graceful renditions of Mozart to powerful Prokofiev.
After World War II, he expanded his touring to cover the world. It was on his return from a tour of Australia that his airplane crashed into King's Mountain near San Francisco.”
- Joseph Stevenson, allmusic.com