Music of Albeniz, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Copland, Debussy, Khachaturian, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Scarlatti, Schubert, Schumann, Shostakovich, etc. (recorded 1944/1953)
RCA Red Seal 68442 (9 CDs) (M) TT: 10 hours +

This is a release of enormous interest: "The William Kapell Edition," a 9-CD set of most available recordings by the remarkable American pianist who died so young more than four decades ago. William Kapell, born in New York September 20, 1922, studied with Olga Samaroff, won the 1940 Philadelphia Orchestra Youth Contest while still at Juilliard, and the following year won both the Naumburg and Town Hall Endowment Awards. More honors followed, and in 1942 he played the Khachaturian Concerto with Efrem Kurtz and the New York Philharmonic. This music became identified with him and in 1946 he recorded it with Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony, a best-selling classical 78rpm album, one of his first under an exclusive contract with RCA.

Kapell was obsessive about his art; he practised many hours each day, even on days when he was giving a concert. He had a technique to rival Vladimir Horowitz, musicianship of a level that attracted Artur Rubinstein, who became his mentor. Kapell's compulsion for success was achieved through hard work and, of course, his incredible natural gifts. His playing was dynamic, intense and committed. Kapell also had to overcome the stigma of being an American; most leading musicians of the time were of European heritage. He presented a strong figure at the keyboard, with his handsome features and shock of wavy black hair, unassuming and assured, with none of the phony gestures and false emotion customary with many other performers. Kapell just strode out to the piano, sat down and played -- brilliantly. His reputation grew quickly. The most famous conductors of the time -- Reiner, Bernstein, Stokowski, Ormandy, Monteux, Dorati, Rodzinski and Steinberg -- all chose him as soloist in a wide range of repertory, and orchestra musicians liked to perform with him. He had many concert tour offers and, returning from a tour to Australia October 29, 1953, his plane crashed into a mountainside, thus ending the life of one of the most remarkable artists of the century. He was only 31.

This was an enormous loss to the musical world, but at least we can remember him through his recordings. Some were issued years ago on CD, but now we have all of his RCA recordings as well as some from other sources, collected in one set; most have been unavailable for decades, and many are issued for the first time in any format. The set includes the three concertos he recorded for RCA (Beethoven Second, Khachaturian, Rachmaninoff Second), and the same composer's Paganini Rhapsody; Chopin's second and third sonatas, Liszt's Mephisto Waltz, Rachmaninoff's Cello Sonata (with Edmund Kurtz), the Viola Sonata in F Minor of Brahms (with William Primrose) and the same composer's Violin Sonata in D Minor (with Jascha Heifetz). Kapell was particularly fond of the Chopin mazurkas, and 29 of them are included in this set, many unissued before. A highlight of the set is Kapell's incredible performance of Chopin's Sonata No. 3, which is the result of sessions over a two-year period; this is as close to definitive as a performance could be. A complete recital from the Frick Collection, recorded March 1, 1953, includes Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, Chopin's Polonaise-Fantasie, Op. 61, and one of the most important recordings in the set, Aaron Copland's Piano Sonata, a work Kapell championed. His Bach, Schubert and Mozart are played with crystalline purity and understanding. Any questions about Kapell's virtuosity will be dispelled by his electrifying Mephisto Waltz of Liszt.

Most frustrating, perhaps, is what is not in the set. I'm sure RCA had extensive recording plans for Kapell, but there was much he was playing at the time that was not recorded. As an example, examine his Chicago Symphony performances. He was a great favorite in the Windy City; Claudia Cassidy, powerful music critic of the Chicago Tribune, practically adopted him (her overly effusive testament to him at the time of his death is included in RCA's booklet). Kapell first appeared with the CSO July 22, 1943, playing his "discovery" concerto, the Khachaturian, with Efrem Kurtz conducting, at the Ravinia Festival. In the decade that followed he appeared a total of 38 times, either in Orchestra Hall or at Ravinia. He played the Khatchaturian once more, with Eugene Ormandy on the podium. Other performances: Mozart Concerto No. 12 (once); Concerto No. 13 (once); Concerto No. 17 (three times); Beethoven Second (twice); Brahms First (twice); Prokofiev Third (seven times); Rachmaninoff Second (four times); Rachmaninoff Third (seven times); Rachmaninoff Paganini Rhapsody (four times); Chopin First (twice); Shostakovitch First (once), and Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain (twice). Conductors, in addition to Kurtz and Ormandy, were Désiré Defauw, Hans Lange, Tauno Hannikainen, Ernest Ansermet, William Steinberg, Fritz Reiner, Antal Dorati, Dimitri Mitropoulos and Rafael Kubelik.

During my early years in Chicago I heard Kapell twice with the Chicago Symphony. One was a matinee of the Rachmaninoff Third, with Eugene Ormandy conducting, February 25, 1949. It was, as I recall, a magnificent virtuoso performance, and I went backstage during the intermission (the concerto was on the first half of the program) to see Kapell; he was incredibly agitated and chain-smoking, but very friendly. The other performance was Mozart's Concerto No. 17, April 10, 1952; he was to have played the Rachmaninoff Second but had injured a finger and instead played the less-demanding Mozart. About the same time I attended a recital that consisted of three sonatas -- youthful memories elude me as to what the first was, but Chopin's Third was next, followed by Copland's Piano Sonata. And of course he was generous with encores. On the subject of repertory, it is intriguing to notice that the photograph on the cover of Volume III in the RCA set shows Kapell looking at a score -- it is Rachmaninoff's First concerto, which doubtless he was planning to play -- another tantalizing example of what might have been!

The RCA set is elaborately produced with each of the CDs in its own jewel-box, all in a cardboard outer box. The ninth CD is entitled "An Artist at Work" and consists of incomplete recordings, alternate takes, a private home recording, essays and reminiscences from the pianist's widow, Anna Lou Dehavenon, as well as Annette Morreau (music critic and writer for the BBC), Jon Samuels (who produced the RCA set), Claudia Cassidy, Van Cliburn, Richard Mohr and others. There also is a rather stilted 22-minute radio interview with Kapell. Sound on the new RCA set is as good as it could be considering age of the recordings, superior to sound on earlier CD releases.

This is a major issue. But one cannot help but wonder why it is full-price. True, the last CD is "free" but the others are premium price, so the set represents a hefty cash layout. Why isn't it mid-price, or a better deal than 9 for the price of 8?

Having this set will serve the needs for most Kapell collectors, but if you are an avid fan you might wish to investigate three CDs on other labels: Pearl CD 9194 contains a live recording of Beethoven's Second Concerto (with the NBC Symphony/Vladimir Golschmann), two Chopin performances not included in the RCA set (Polonaise in A Flat, Op. 53/Prelude in E Minor, Op. 28 No. 5), six lieder of Schubert in which he accompanies soprano Maria Stader, and, most importantly, a live recording of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Artur Rodzinski, a stunning performance superior to his RCA recording. Vai Audio has issued a CD (1027) that contains the Piano Concerto No. 3 of Rachmaninoff with the Toronto Symphony conducted by Sir Ernest MacMillan, Kapell's only known recorded performance of the work. It is dynamic, reflective where it should be, and a technical tour de force. Also on the CD is a live recording of the Khachaturian, with Frank Black and the NBC Symphony, recorded May 20, 1945, a year before he recorded the work with the Boston Symphony. Recorded sound on the Khachaturian is atrocious, but, fortunately, sonic quality for the Rachmaninoff is quite good. And surely one would want to have the Music & Arts CD (990) that contains Kapell's superby impulsive performance of the Piano Concerto No. 1 of Brahms recorded April 12, 1953, with Dimitri Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic, recorded just a few months before Kapell's tragic death.

R.E.B. (Sept. 1999)