Tuesday, September 18, 2012

William Kapell's mastery of the keyboard

It was on the return trip from a tour to Australia that pianist William Kapell's plane crashed outside of San Francisco. Dashing, handsome, and with a pompadour that would make James Dean envious, Kapell was groomed by his handlers as a classical music glamour boy, although from a purely artistic standpoint he was thoroughly serious. In retrospect, Kapell likewise shares with Dean a life cut short and a concurrent status as a legend, though not every legend produces a body of work consistently worthy of such footing. There are almost no dead spots in Kapell's slim but instructive discography. In a way, this hard-working pianist had no time to produce bad recordings, although there is the inevitable wonderment about what Kapell might have done had fate allowed him to mature past his 31 young years. With RCA Red Seal's Kapell Rediscovered: The Australian Broadcasts, such wonderment may well be satisfied, as these recordings reveal that in the final months of his life, Kapell was making something of an artistic breakthrough. His intense and dynamic playing matures in a way that is striking, even for Kapell. Fortunately, he lived in a time when television was not quite king, radio broadcasts of classical music concerts were common, and hobbyists enthusiastically recorded such broadcasts for their own amusement on home disc-cutting machines. These broadcasts, made between July and October 1953 and literally representing some the last playing Kapell did in public, were captured in just such a way. Although certain individual items, such as the Rachmaninoff "Piano Concerto No. 3" and the Mussorgsky "Pictures at an Exhibition," were previously known and circulated to a small extent, Kapell Rediscovered recovers the full extent of Kapell's Australian broadcasts and puts them in the same place for the first time. It also introduces Kapell's interpretations of works such as Debussy's "Suite bergamasque," and presents the whole in the best sound possible. In terms of sound, Kapell Rediscovered is certainly not for the general public; while most of it is easily tolerable, there are numerous interferences -- crispy surfaces; a stray, distant radio voice yammering its way through Kapell's only reading of "Clair de Lune"; distortion; and other vagaries endemic to home recordings made on radio sets. You have been warned, though ears skilled in listening to historical recordings -- and many of Kapell's most die-hard fans come well equipped in such measure -- will not have any trouble picking the player out of the noise. There is occasional patching from other recordings to cover gaps, and this can be momentarily distracting, though is necessary in order to deliver a complete performance. Nevertheless, RCA Red Seal's Kapell Rediscovered is a first-class job of restoration, and in a sense, it is for the Kapell collector that has everything -- and RCA's 1998 Kapell Edition is practically everything -- yet this is far better a historical set than such a cliché would imply


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