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William Kapell, p. – Broadcasts and Concert Performances, 1944-1952 = Works of BACH, BRAHMS, CHOPIN, DEBUSSY, GRANADOS, LISZT, MENDELSSOHN, RACHMANINOV, SCHUBERT, R. STRAUSS & others – Marston (3 discs)

Marston Records bestows a glorious boon on those who revere the great American virtuoso, William Kapell.

William Kapell – Broadcasts and Concert Performances, 1944-1952 = BACH: Suite in a minor, BWV 818; Nun komm der Heiden Heiland (arr. Busoni); Concerto in a minor for Four Klaviers (after Vivaldi); BRAHMS: Intermezzo in A-flat, Op. 76, No. 3; CHASINS: Tricky Trumpet No. 6; CHOPIN: Nocturne in b-flat minor, Op. 9, No. 1; Sonata No. 3 in b: Largo – excerpt; Mazurka in f minor, Op. 63, No. 2;  Mazurka in c-sharp minor, Op. 6, No. 2; DEBUSSY: Children’s Corner Suite; Suite bergamasque; La Soiree dans Granade; FALLA: Miller’s Dance; GRANADOS: The Maiden and the Nightingale; LISZT: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 11 in a minor; MENDELSSOHN: Song Without Words in f-sharp minor, Op. 67, No. 2; MOZART: Sonata in C Major, K. 330; Sonata in B-flat Major, K. 570; NAPOLITANO: El gato; PALMER: Toccata ostinato; RACHMANINOV: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43; SCHUBERT: 2 Laendler from D. 783; SCHUMANN: Romance in F-sharp Major, Op. 28, No. 2; Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44; SHOSTAKOVICH: 3 Preludes from Op. 34; R. STRAUSS: Burleske in d minor – William Kapell, piano/ Rosalyn Tureck, Eugene List & Joseph Battista, pianos (Bach)/ The Fine Arts Quartet/ NBC Sym. Strings/Milton Katims (Bach)/ Pittsburgh Sym. Orch./ Fritz Reiner (R. Strauss)/ Philadelphia Orch./ Eugene Ormandy (Rachmaninov) – Marston 53021-2 (3 CDs) 71:44, 79:23, 73:38 [www.marstonrecords.com] *****:

William Kapell (1922-1953), the volatile and intellectually ambitious American piano virtuoso, provided the firepower for my first broadcast on KZSU-FM, featured as he was in the 1953 Brahms d minor Concerto with Dimitri Mitropoulos from New York. Kapell’s name, according to the blurb from Marston Records, “still resonates with pianophiles more than 60 years after his tragic death in an airplane crash near San Francisco.”  Marston offers Kapell performances that have never been issued on CD:  “more than two thirds of the set had been previously unpublished in any form.

Among the highlights are two 1952 half-hour studio broadcasts from New York’s WQXR that have only recently come to light.” The first CD proffers selections from Carnegie Hall recitals, 1945 and 1947, preserved tenuously on 78 rpm discs.  The disc concludes with a 1949 performance of Richard Strauss’s Burleske from Pittsburgh (1 February 1948) under Reiner, a broadcast for which Kapell had one week to prepare the piece. The second CD contains two half-hour broadcasts from station WQXR, unearthed by researcher and collector Eugen Pollioni. The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini from Philadelphia (28 October 1944) documents Kapell’s earliest recorded version of this brilliant work.  Disc 3 combines recitals from Connecticut College, a 1947 program, “Music Hall of Fame,” and a 1950 broadcast from NBC of Bach’s transcription of a Vivaldi concerto for four violins. Lastly, from Northwestern University (21 November 1951), we have a wonderful collaboration on the Schumann Piano Quintet with the Fine Arts Quartet. While the annotator, Bradford Gowen, cites the Schumann as “our only recorded opportunity to hear [Kapell] in a larger chamber ensemble, he is not correct: a version of the Mozart Piano Quartet in E-flat, K. 493 exists from the 1953 Casals Festival at Prades (on M&A CD-1113).

The general condition of these documents proves more listenable than the RCA “Kapell Rediscovered” CD album that appeared several years ago. Still, in the midst of a dynamic and athletic Mozart Sonata in C (21 March 1947) at Carnegie Hall, some intrusive shatter occurs. The opening Bach Suite in a, happily, reveals in better sound preservation a sober and carefully-inflected performance, clear and tastefully delineated.  Kapell left eighteen mazurkas of Chopin in the RCA vaults, and his f minor, Op. 63, No. 2 here in recital enjoys a startling intimacy and inflection.  Posterity has lost Kapell’s complete f minor Brahms Sonata, but the little Intermezzo in A-flat has the music-box sweetness and drooping nostalgia we expect from Gieseking.  From 28 February 1945 Carnegie Hall Kapell opens with the lustrous Nocturne No. 1 of Chopin, played for its subtle harmonic shifts and top singing line.  The middle section becomes poetic and passionate in the Kapell manner, but he controls his colors warmly and articulately.

Much in the style of Artur Rubinstein – or Olga Samaroff – the Schumann Romance, spread over three staves, unfolds as a mystical love song, and it makes us yearn to know what middle Scriabin sonatas by Kapell might have sounded like.  Soft, alluring, tolling bells announce Debussy’s  1903 “stamp,” his tone-picture La Soiree dans Granade, here a passionate night of love accompanied by guitars and redolent vapors. The Moorish harmonies add to the exotics of the moment. Wit and concentrated drama mark Kapell’s three Preludes from Op. 34 of Shostakovich, of which No. 10 in c-sharp minor captures a grudging nostalgia, rife with trills. The No. 5 in D, a brief but demonic toccata, knocks the audience out.   From his 1946 South American tour, Kapell retrieved a folk item, El gato, an Argentine setting by Emilio Napolitano, a tricky hat-dance for a spirited feline.  Robert Palmer (1915-2010) provides Kapell with a contemporary rhythmic knot in the brief but punishing Toccata Ostinato, set in groups of eighth-notes and accented, asymmetric rhythmic groups worthy of Bartok.  Kapell openly felt discouraged about his 1948 Strauss Burleske and had suppressed any dissemination of the recording – it has been the Kapell children who prevailed in the issuance of this historic document.  Nevertheless, in spite of Kapell’s self-criticism, there explode moments of splendid drama and lyric poetry, with excellent assistance from Fritz Reiner and his Pittsburgh tympanist.         

The WQXR Saturday series extends a welcome to Kapell on 9 June 1952 for his program of Mozart, Granados, Schubert, and Chasins.  The recorded sound delivers the Kapell sound we crave: the late Mozart Sonata No. 17 in B-flat (1798) has gorgeous tone, supple phrasing, and absolutely secure landings.  The Mozart counterpoint evolves unsmudged, robust, and direct. The brisk runs display a finesse and exactitude that untold hours of hard work produce.  The E-flat second movement Adagio enjoys a resonant sonority, crystalline and supple, sober but warmly intimate. The final Allegretto, conceived in leaps and bold color display, receives a pert, acerbic energy from Kapell, witty as it is wise. The large Granados portrait form his Goyescas at first seems academic more than romantically sensuous, but harmonization and personal rubato soon supply the missing erotics. Those bird trills!  Two Schubert laendler follow, in A-flat minor and major, and their Viennese lilt and shaded delicacy need nothing more from Lili Kraus or Alfred Brendel. The quirky Tricky Trumpet by Abram Chasins (from Piano Playtime for young pianists) casts a jazzy nonchalance that resonates with Gershwin and Americana. Kapell then begins the broad and arioso Largo from the Chopin Third Sonata, but announcer-actor Joseph Campanella cuts it short with closing remarks after 45 measures.

Debussy and Liszt occupy the June 16 appearance at WQXR, his third recital. The Children’s Corner Suite presents an immediacy of effect quite ravishing in the even character of the scales of Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum, a smooth continuity and erotic balance we would not hear again until Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. “Jimbo’s Lullaby” and “Serenade for the Doll” reveal that Kapell already knew and preserved the delights of childhood. Pure, swirling magic and tiny bells ring in “The Snow is Dancing,” with its moments of plainchant embedded in the winter wonderland.  Kapell seems to ally “The Little Shepherd” with moments from the “Footsteps in the Snow” prelude: perhaps they complement each other in companionship and loneliness. Finally, shades of Tristan appear in the course of the suave, sophisticated, music-hall “Golliwog’s Cakewalk,” strutted with acerbic accents and thumping feet.  It was Kapell’s commercial record of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 11 that first made me a “believer.” Here, in the first of two performances at WQXR, Kapell realizes the faster of his tempos, profuse in the Kapell grand style, with liquid runs and lofty rhetorical figures and turns. The swagger and inflected control soon become electric, and we simply allow ourselves to be swept away. In his eight-minute interview, an ailing – with a cold – Kapell sees good opportunities for talented performers in the number of recording companies – particularly Decca – that meet high standards.

The word “unknown,” for Kapell, is becoming obsolete as radio and recording media make talented people’s names more available. When asked about significant musicians, Kapell names Schnabel, Landowska, and Koussevitzky. The Rachmaninov Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (28 October 1944) with Ormandy celebrates a piece Kapell found “remarkably simple to play,” which makes us awe his sheer dexterity and stamina, not to mention his self-assurance.  But when we hear the supple fluency of his interpretation, we must bow to his thorough ease of execution and poetic utterance. How dire do the chords of the Dies Irae sound, knowing as we do the tragic fate that consumed dear William Kapell.

Bach’s chorale, Nun komm der Heiden Heiland BWV 659, opens Disc 3, the recital from New London, CT (17 October 1951), and we hear it in the same spirit as listening to Lipatti’s chorale prelude in Besancon, 1950.  Bach’s influence carries into the opening “Prelude” from Debussy’s Suite bergamasque, limpid and suavely nostalgic. The last page flares with the rampant energy that Kapell has artistically suppressed until that point. The “Minuet” and the “Passepied” dance in kindly, generously lucent figures. “Clair de Lune” truly grants us a rarity in Kapell’s idiosyncratic, color mysticism.  The coughs from the audience seem to juxtapose mortality and eternity in a single moment. Another, slightly more expansive, meteoric Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No. 11 ensues, followed – after brief Chopin – by Spanish resolute fire from Manuel de Falla, whereby comparison to Artur Rubinstein appear spontaneously.   So, too, the Artur Rubinstein – whose glorious tone Kapell always acknowledged – analogy invests Kapell’s Chopin Mazurka in c-sharp minor,  national in color, impish and rife with tesknota (bitter-sweet nostalgia), at once. We then return to 1947, for the transcribed radio program, “The Music Hall of Fame,” wherein the announcer introduces Kapell’s rendition of the “Allegretto” from the Mozart Sonata in C. Kapell recounts two amusing incidents, one from Buenos Aires, the other in Huntsville, Alabama. The latter involves a Bach fugue whose 12 entries of the subject found accompaniment by Kapell’s sneezes from hay fever. The charming Song Without Words dispels any thoughts of human finitude. On 20 May 1950, NBC arranged a memorial broadcast for Olga Samaroff and the Olga Samaroff Foundation, at which four distinguished pupils perform the Bach arrangement of Vivaldi’s Concerto for 4 Violins, RV 580.  The homogeneous keyboards never reveal Kapell’s individuality, but the event remains incandescently unique on all levels.  Lastly, we have restored to us from Chicago, 21 November 1951 the Northwestern University Chamber Music Concert featuring Schumann’s masterly Piano Quintet. Commentator Gowen notes that Kapell had performed the work earlier in the year with the Budapest String Quartet. Further praise of Kapell seems to me redundant, so attend as well to the finely honed evocations from cellist George Sopkin in the course of a marvelous ensemble.

A personal note: my review for Audiophile Audition of the “Kapell Rediscovered” RCA set earned from Anna Lou Dehavenon, Kapell’s widow, an invitation to visit her at her New York City apartment.  We discussed Kapell and his legacy, aspects of my review, and we enjoyed tea and cookies. Kapell had already died tragically well before I discovered him via his epic Khachaturian Concerto recorded with Serge Koussevitzky in Boston.  That this current set result from combined efforts of Donald Manildi, Ward Marston, Gregor Benko, Jon Samuels, Seth Winner, J. Richard Harris and others testifies to the devotion Kapell’s art still inspires. The booklet design, with several rare pictures of Kapell, reinforces his image as the James Dean of the classical music world.   

—Gary Lemco

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