Kapell Rediscovered: The Australian Broadcasts – 2-CD set

by | May 27, 2008 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Kapell Rediscovered: The Australian Broadcasts = RACHMANINOV: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30; BACH: Suite in A Minor, BWV 818; MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition; TRAD: God Save the Queen;  MOZART: Sonata in B-flat Major, K. 570; DEBUSSY: Suite Bergamasque; CHOPIN: Barcarolle, Op. 60; Nocturne in E-flat Major, Op. 55, No. 2; Scherzo No. 1 in B Minor, Op. 20; PROKOFIEV: Sonata No. 7 in B-flat Major, Op. 83 – William Kapell, piano/Victorian Symphony Orchestra/Sir Bernard Heinze

RCA 82876-68560-2, (2 CDs) 77:30; 73:12 [Distrib. Universal] ****:

This is and will remain a problematic set for collectors–but have no doubts, they will buy it; and because they spent a goodly sum on an artist they adore, they will listen to it often, in spite of the sonic defects that make some moments almost unbearable. I award this set four stars for the efforts of engineer Jon Samuels to restore what otherwise would have been irretrievable documents, in order that we hear them sing. Samuels’ own notes to the program explain the etiology of the recordings, their deficiencies and adjustments/splicing that had to be made to ensure a musically authentic experience.

William Kapell (1922-1953) continues to command speculation as to his musical and spiritual development had he lived, having attained the status in many minds as America’s greatest home-grown piano virtuoso. An athlete dying young, Kapell lost his life just as his thoughts on Brahms, Chopin, Debussy, and Prokofiev were evolving into different sound realms. His D Minor Brahms Concerto with Mitropoulos still ranks among the great Dionysiac performances. His technique, refined by Olga Samaroff, can not fully account for the passionate temper of his playing, which naturally gravitated to the Romantics: he was born to play Rachmaninov as if he were playing Bach. So it comes as no surprise that the 1953 D Minor Concerto with Heinze compels our attention, not only for the mighty octaves that rival Horowitz, but the dreamy, fluid repeated notes, the pearly play, and whimsical nostalgia of the performance. The segue to the last movement Alla Breve flows in crisp waves, the glissandi runs and octave block chords the inevitable, persuaded marble of a Michelangelo creation for Pope Julius II. Some great diviso playing by Heinze’s strings just prior to Kapell’s wickedly brilliant recap in relentless triplets. The dialogues between Kapell and the Victorian Symphony tympanist and battery section is worth the price of admission, the abysmal sonics notwithstanding.

The Bach suite projects a sober, plastic approach to Bach, a strong definition in all parts, the polyphonic separation nicely balanced.  The music dances and sings, eve nas it maintains the sturdy underlying pulsation requisite to Bach as it is to the world of Chopin. The Courante possesses both muscle and lilting declamations, at once. The aura for the Sarabande immediately likens Kapell to that other Bach guru, Glenn Gould. Kapell digs into his keys more deeply, not interested to make the piano sound like a harpsichord. But the staccati and legato juxtapositions, the spaces between the notes expanding without sag, resonating with cosmic consequence. The Gigue strikes out at us, almost punishing, were it not for the playful pushes and pulls Kapell adds to its all too brief life.

The Mussorgsky embraces many of the qualities we continue to admire in Kapell, not the least of which is the aggressive, searching energy he brings, the supple shaping of phrases, where even The Gnome’s “atonal” spasms emit girth and terrorized power in graduated harmonic and dynamic momentum. The return of the Promenade, almost diatonic, breathes fresh air after a descent into a Poe dungeon. The vocalization of The Old Castle, its troubadour’s song over an ostinato bass, might have been penned by Roderick Usher. Lightness of touch and piquant phasing for the Tuileries (and the later circus etude, Limoges), followed by the earth-shaking ox-cart Bydlo, Mother Russia in her most primal form, punishing and gratifying us at once, while demonstrating Kapell’s capacity for agogic shifts and nuanced ritards. Directness of attack for the Trilby chicks and the (Marxist) encounter of two Jews from opposite ends of the social hierarchy, the variants not that far from our old friend, The Gnome. With the descent into the Dantesque world of the Catacombs, Kapell delivers wonderful bass chords indicating what his Schumann Carnaval would have been. The luminous, repeated notes bestow the sepulcher an unearthly nacre, and we do seem to be speaking with spirits departed. Thunder, molten rain, and lightning surround Baba Yaga, the furies indicative of the Prokofiev 7th  on disc two. The Great Gate of Kiev swings open before us, uncompromising in its vision of Heaven as Baba Yaga yawned Hell before us. Huge cascades of superheated sound yield to an exalted hymn, as Kapell takes us upward on swinging chords we hear again in Rachmaninov’s C Minor Concerto.  We can hear the palpable shift in performance at the last bars, the difference in piano tone apparent, as the original had to be augmented by a Frick Museum recital 1 March 1953.

The “joys” of disc 2 are the addition of new repertory to the Kapell legacy, beginning with God Save the Queen. The lean, supple Mozart Sonata in B-flat that ensues projects an entirely crisp and chaste sound from Kapell, at odds with the mountains of sonority he provided in the Russians. The contained energy bursts out at long runs and chiseled ornaments, the insistent singing line, the finality of the musical periods. What a divine flurry of notes at the last page, a whirlwind in an elegant vase. Lovely self-possession in the Adagio, followed by clean, elastic articulation of Mozart’s spirited Allegretto. Kapell’s Debussy enjoys many fine nuances in the course of its vigorous processional opening, lovely colors, shaded dynamics; but the session sounds taped over a previous radio source that remains irritatingly present. Exquisite non-legato for the Menuet, and the harmonies quake and rock us beguilingly. Clair de Lune might have been composed for Kapell, who plays it with a subtle authority reminiscent of Schmitz and Copeland. The Passepied evanesces its way into gossamer space.

Kapell always performed Chopin as a strong suit, and I remain fond of the B Minor Sonata and several of his mazurkas, the Op. 50, No. 3 in particular. His Barcarolle opens with massive chords and flamboyant ornaments; nothing effeminate in those trills. The gondolier’s waves become Charybdis and could swallow the world. The comeliness and confidence of the piece–the ease of period transitions–shine through despite grim sonic reproduction. The E-flat Major Nocturne has Ignaz Friedman as its champion, but Kapell finds his own treasures in its pearly, unhurried elegance, several times hinting at the E Minor Nocturne, Op. 72, No. 1. Brilliance and blazing speed of the Horowitz order for the pounding Scherzo in B Minor, whose middle section lullaby Kapell softens the entire ethos, permitting the polyphonic voices their blessed, embowered noels. The two stunning da capo chords and the final pages are Kapell’s version of the Atomic Bomb. Which, naturally enough, takes us to the B-flat sonata of Prokofiev, which contains enough percussive, repeated notes for several lifetimes. Kapell’s inscription of the C Major Concerto with Dorati long established his credentials in this music; here, in the Andantino of the first movement, he insinuates something of Medtner and Scriabin. Songful melancholy for the Andante caloroso, played as perhaps Kapell might have played the second of the Gershwin Preludes. The moto perpetuo Precipitato shatters our complacency with white knuckled bravura, an arch of unbroken impetus and blips of color, Moszkowski’s Etincelles loaded with cherry bombs rather than firecrackers.

Many will rue the sonic distractions, but what does come through testifies to a major pianistic demon of unbridled power who was only beginning to feel dry behind those amazing ears.

–Gary Lemco

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