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William Kapell: Three First Releases = RACHMANINOFF: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini; PROKOFIEV: Piano Concerto; CHOPIN: Nocturne – William Kapell, piano/ NY Phil./ Artur Rodzinski (Rachmaninoff)/ Philadelphia Orch./ Eugene Ormandy/ Boston Symph. Orch./ Richard Burgin – JSP Records

William Kapell: Live Performances – Three First Releases = RACHMANINOFF: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43; PROKOFIEV: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, Op. 26 (2 performances); CHOPIN: Nocturne in E-flat Major, Op. 55, No. 2 – William Kapell, piano/ New York Philharmonic/ Artur Rodzinski (Rachmaninoff)/ Philadelphia Orchestra/ Eugene Ormandy/ Boston Symphony Orchestra/ Richard Burgin – JSP Records JSP684, 79:04(9/1/17) [www.jsprecords.com]  *****: 

JSP Records restores invaluable moments from the most promising of America’s young piano virtuosos, William Kapell. 

Once more, restoration engineers John H. Haley and Seth B. Winner collaborate to restore rare recordings by America’s first home-spun—he had been trained by Olga Samaroff and Dorothy Lafollette—piano virtuoso, William Kapell (1922-1953), 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 he championed; and his exploring, adventurous musicianship had embraced many works in the Classical and Contemporary traditions as well.

The Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (28 October 1945) with Artur Rodzinski represents the only performance that has had prior CD incarnation (on Pearl GEMM CD 9194), here issued in much superior sound. The rendition 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 No. 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 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 revels itself where Ormandy retarded the line.  The tugs and tempo rubato applied to the evolving musical line reveal a degree of musical maturity in Kapell’s own development that, akin to the spirit of Schubert, held “fairer hopes.” The coordination of Kapell’s part in the ascending scales of the first movement makes us wish dearly Kapell had left us a Ravel G Major Concerto. 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, scalar and liquid, 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.

The “encore” on this fine disc comes to us via a commercial test pressing by Kapell of Chopin’s E-flat Major Nocturne—date unknown—the very same made immortal on record by Ignaz Friedman. In 12/8, Lento sostenuto, the work asks Kapell to maintain a consistent, flowing line that offers no contrasting section.  Kapell seems to be actively searching through every bar for some relief from the work’s wiry melancholy. The inner voices and passing counterpoints, darkly hued, find solace in the top line and passing, bell-toned dissonances that ring with smiling regrets.

—Gary Lemco

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