William Kapell’s parents were not musicians, but they did own a bookstore in Manhattan, his father being of Spanish-Russian ancestry and his mother of Polish descent. For such a large talent, it is surprising that Kapell did not show signs of developing into a pianist until he was around ten years of age. He had taken some piano lessons a few years before, but when he specifically asked his parents for more, they took him to a renowned teacher, Dorothea Anderson La Follette. She recognised his talent and the boy made incredibly rapid progress. La Follette patiently laid the groundwork for Kapell’s technique, but by the time he was sixteen La Follette was looking for another teacher to control Kapell’s fiery temperament and ‘untamed qualities’. She approached Olga Samaroff who taught Kapell at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music for which he was granted a scholarship. In 1940 he was granted a further fellowship to continue his studies with Samaroff at the Juilliard School of Music. The same year he won the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Youth Competition and played Saint-Saëns’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor Op. 22 with Eugene Ormandy conducting. The success of this performance led to an invitation to play at Robin Hood Dell that summer. The result of winning the Naumberg Award the following year was a concert at New York’s Town Hall; Kapell made his debut there in October 1941.
The following year he won the Town Hall prize for the best performance by an artist under thirty years of age, which in turn led to another Town Hall recital. Kapell built on his Town Hall successes when he performed Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto at Lewisohn Stadium in July of 1942. The work was a novelty for the audience, and young Kapell’s dynamic, thrilling performance had his listeners on their feet. In February of the same year, at the tender age of nineteen and while still studying with Samaroff, Kapell had already signed a three-year contract with the most influential concert agent in America, Arthur Judson.
After World War II Kapell played in Canada, toured South America three times, Europe once, and in May 1953 played in Israel and at the Prades Festival in France. That same year he toured Australia for the second time, playing thirty-seven concerts in fourteen weeks. It was on his return flight, on the morning of 29 October 1953, that the plane in which Kapell was travelling struck King’s Mountain, just south of San Francisco. All nineteen passengers and crew were killed and America lost one of its greatest pianists at the age of thirty-one.
Kapell was a fiercely committed musician. From the time his career took off in the early 1940s, he worked zealously, and nearly all of his time was spent performing, teaching, practising or recording. His own strictest critic, he would write comments after his performances and set himself the highest of standards, ones that were almost impossible to attain. He was always striving for more from his own playing, and although incessant practising can lead to musically stale performances, this never happened with Kapell: he never acquired that brittle sound that characterised so many of the Horowitz imitators. Because of his hard work, Kapell had a large repertoire; at twenty-four he could play seven different recital programmes and ten piano concertos, and although he did not concentrate on any particular composer or genre, he excelled in the modern Russian repertoire of Rachmaninov, Shostakovich, Khachaturian and Prokofiev which suited his dynamic temperament. He also played modern American composers including Aaron Copland, and in the concerto repertoire collaborated with such luminaries as Leopold Stokowski, Eugene Ormandy, Leonard Bernstein, Fritz Reiner and Serge Koussevitzky.
All of Kapell’s commercial recordings were made for RCA, the label to which he signed at the age of twenty in 1944. After his death, there were very few reissues of his recordings. In the compact disc era a couple of discs were issued in 1987 and 1992, but it was in 1998 that BMG/RCA produced a handsome and exemplary edition of nine compact discs of Kapell recordings. Included are his classic recordings of a selection of Chopin’s mazurkas, his exceptional Chopin Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor Op. 58 which is still one of the very best on record, a probing performance of Bach’s Partita No. 4 in D major, a whole live recital from the Frick Museum in March 1953 where he played Copland’s Piano Sonata and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, plus unpublished material and an interview. With orchestra Kapell recorded Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Serge Koussevitzky (a work he soon tired of and dropped from his repertoire) and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat Op. 19 with the NBC Orchestra and Vladimir Golschmann. In the Russian repertoire, all the concerto recordings are of an extremely high standard. Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 Op. 26 is given an electrifying performance, whilst Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 18 and the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini Op. 43 are works ideally suited to Kapell’s style and temperament. He recorded chamber music as well: Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata in G minor Op. 19 with Edmund Kurtz, Brahms’s Viola Sonata in F minor Op. 120 No. 1 with William Primrose and the Violin Sonata in D minor Op. 108 with Jascha Heifetz.
Fortunately, there also exist a number of live and private recordings. The International Piano Archives in Maryland have published an LP of performances at Carnegie Hall in 1945 and 1947 as well as two compact discs (in conjunction with VAI) which include a live performance from 1948 of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor Op. 30 with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Sir Ernest MacMillan. The twenty-six-year-old Kapell gives a rhapsodic and passionate performance. The following year he played Falla’s Noches en los jardines de España with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and Leopold Stokowski; this has been released by Music & Arts. One of Kapell’s best live performances captured on disc is of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini Op. 43 which he performed with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and Artur Rodzinski in 1945. This version, in excellent sound, is far superior to his studio recording and shows just what effect Kapell’s pianism could have on a live audience. This performance was issued on a Pearl compact disc which also includes Kapell accompanying soprano Maria Stader in some Schubert lieder from the Prades Festival in 1953.
Two other concerto performances deserve mention. In 1945 Kapell played Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 Op. 35 with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy; this performance has been released by Arbiter. At least two recordings survive of Kapell playing Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor Op. 15 at Carnegie Hall. From 1953 comes a performance with the New York Philharmonic and Dimitri Mitropoulos whilst in 1945 the twenty-three-year-old played it with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy. This latter version has only been available in a large boxed set issued by the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the later performance has more profundity in the slow movement. In 2002 newly discovered broadcast recordings were issued by the Music & Arts label. From 1951 Kapell plays Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 18 with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and Leonard Bernstein. Kapell and Bernstein seem to have similar musical ideals which produce a thrilling performance of this oft-heard work.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).