William Kapell died on October 29, 1953 when the DC-6 on which he was returning from a concert tour of Australia flew into King’s Mountain, just 16 miles south of San Francisco Airport. On this – the 56th – anniversary of his death, I am pleased to honor his memory and share his artistry with readers of these pages.
William Kapell was born in New York City on September 20, 1922. He began taking piano lessons at age 7, and his early teachers included Dorothea Anderson La Follette and Olga Samaroff, with whom he studied first in Philadelphia and later at Juilliard. In 1941, he won both the Philadelphia Orchestra’s youth competition and the prestigious Naumburg Award, and at 20 he embarked on his concert career.
Initially, he was best known for his performances of the crowd-pleasing concertos by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and especially Khachaturian. As Virgil Thompson wrote after his death, “It was only in the last two years that he had gained real access to the grand repertory of the piano, to the concertos of Mozart and Beethoven and Brahms and Chopin and to the suites of Bach and Debussy, and that he had been genuinely successful with that repertory.”
“The deepening of his art in these last few years was recognized,” writes Michael Kimmelman in the New York Review Of Books. “Jascha Heifetz and Gregor Piatagorsky became anxious to record with him. When Jack Pfeiffer, the RCA producer, called him in California one afternoon to ask whether he knew the Brahms D Minor Violin Sonata because Heifetz wanted to record it the next day, Kapell said yes, then stayed up all night to learn it. [The italics are mine.] The recording, exultant and showing great feeling, was made in Hollywood in 1950; it explains why Heifetz said he could never forgive Kapell for dying young.”
I have that record, and it is glorious. But what kind of talent is it that can learn overnight – and to Kapell’s exacting standards – a piece as profound and demanding as Brahms’ third violin sonata? For a recording with Heifetz, no less!
Harold Schonberg wrote in The Great Pianists, published in 1963, that “Many American pianists of the postwar generation have the potentialities to develop into major artists, but as yet it is a little early to make any predictions. The most promising of all, William Kapell, died in an airplane crash in 1953. Kapell had won a Naumburg Competition award, and he went on to impress an international public with a spectacularly honest technique (never any bluff or cover-up), a forthright musical approach and a fierce integrity. His playing had that indefinable thing known as command, and he was well on his way to being one of the century’s important pianists when his plane from Australia went down shortly before arriving in San Francisco.”
I was introduced to Kapell’s playing in 1964 through an RCA Victor album entitled “The Unforgettable William Kapell”. This record includes the Khachaturian Piano Concerto, a lovely interpretation of Evocación by Albéniz, the 18th variation from Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and a performance of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz that is sheer wizardry. In my opinion, this performance comes as close to pianistic perfection as it is possible to do. Never has the indefinable “command” referred to by Schonberg been more in evidence. Regarding this performance, Tim Page of the Washington Post writes that it had “all the energy and the manic wildness of Horowitz, but it also [had] a sort of cool intelligence and a formal understanding which… wasn’t always in the Horowitz recordings.” He goes on to say, “I would very, very quickly name it one of the most extraordinary piano recordings I have ever heard.”
The following clip is the only known video of Kapell. It is from Alistair Cooke’s TV program “Omnibus”, and includes a sonata by Scarlatti, the Nocturne in E Flat by Chopin, and an arrangement for piano by Emilio Napolitano of an Argentine folk song, “Gato”.
Claudia Cassidy, the famously acerbic critic for the Chicago Tribune, wrote in her tribute to Kapell, “He was, this smoldering, passionate young pianist, generous, lovable, deeply gentle of heart. I loved his playing above all other playing, and this can scarcely be a secret to anyone who has read this column. So not for myself, but to tell you what he was like, now that he is gone, here is a part of one of his last letters:
Why do you think playing in Chicago always is some sort of test for me? … Music isn’t enough. Performers aren’t enough. There must be someone who loves music as much as life. For you, and remember this always, those of us with something urgent to say, we give everything.
“Kapell gave, and I am eternally grateful that I was here to listen.”