Persons related to Chopin Persons related to Chopin

William Kapell

William Kapell

William Kapell

*20 IX 1922 Nowy Jork, †29 X 1953 katastrofa lotnicza nad San Francisco

William Kapell was born to a family of Polish-Russian Jews; his parents run a bookshop on one of New York's main streets. Kapell studied piano playing with Dorothea LaFollette, and later (1938-41) with Olga Samaroff at the Philadelphia Conservatoire and the Julliard School of Music. In 1940 he won a young pianists' competition organised by the Philadelphia Orchestra, and made his debut under the direction of Eugene Ormandy. He became famous after winning the Walter Naumburg Prize in 1941. That same year, he played at Carnegie Hall, and soon became known as the best American pianist of the young generation, signing a recording contract with RCA. He played with the leading conductors of his time, including Eugene Ormandy, Leopold Stokowski, Fritz Reiner, Serge Koussevitzky and Guido Cantelli, and as a chamber musician with Rudolf Serkin, William Primrose, and Jascha Heifetz. He also studied with Artur Schnabel. He played in many concert halls in the US, and toured South America (1946, 1948, 1951), Australia (1945, 1953), and Europe (1947). He died in a plane crash at the age of 31. Kapell's legacy (letters and scores) is today held at the International Piano Archives, Maryland University.

Kapell earned an early fame with his interpretations of Khachaturian's Concerto and Prokofiev's Concerto in C Major, stunning audiences with his incredible finger technique and pianistic might; he was seen as the next Horowitz. Yet Kapell came to feel at odds with the image of a virtuoso when he started offering deeper interpretations and a broader repertoire. This is evident in his renditions of Rachmaninov's Concerto in C minor and D minor, where he appears as a mature artist, linking with the classicist ideas of Landowska, Schnabel and Toscanini (his favourite musicians), understanding Rachmaninov as a great composer of the 20th century, not an heir to Romanticism. The main characteristics of these late recordings are a fine articulation, a sharp, percussive tone colour, a focus on rhythm and meter, and an emotional austerity or even purism that is reminiscent of Sergei Rachmaninov's own playing. Similar traits are to be found in recordings of works by Liszt, Brahms, Chopin and also Bach, where Kapell can be seen as a predecessor of Glenn Gould.

Kapell's legacy on disc is fragmentary, interrupted as it was by his premature death. It includes isolated, often short pieces by Bach (Partita in D major), Scarlatti, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Mussorgsky (a fine Pictures from an Exhibition, 1953), Debussy, Albéniz (a phenomenal Evocación), de Falla, Shostakovich. A central role is occupied by Liszt (Sonetto 104 del Petrarca, Hungarian Rhapsody No. 11 and a famous Mephisto Waltz of 1945), Brahms (including the Concerto in D minor and the Violin Sonata in D minor with Jascha Heifetz), Rachmaninov (the above-mentioned concertos and the Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini), American composers (including Copland's Sonata, which Kapell premiered), and Chopin. Of the latter, Kapell left recordings of the Polonaise-Fantaisie, Nocturne in E flat major Op. 55 No. 2, Waltz in E flat major Op. 18, 26 mazurkas (1951-52) and, crucially, the two sonatas, considered to be among the finest interpretations of these works. The massive sound and colossal technique of the Sonata in B flat minor of 1953 are an echo of Rachmaninov's own version, while in the Sonata in B minor (1952) Kapell reaches the heights of virtuosity (very fast tempos), but emphasises the lyrical third movement - although it is always a cold-blooded, opaque lyricism so typical of Kapell.

Wojciech Bońkowski

August 2006 

Tim Page, William Kapell: A Documentary Life History of the American Pianist, International Piano Archives, College Park (Maryland) 1992
A 9-CD set of Kapell's recordings was published in 2000 by RCA (catalogue no. 68442). Several key works from his repertoire have only appeared on collector's labels such as VAI Audio (Rachmaninov), Pearl (Prades recital), Music&Arts (Prokofiev, Brahms), Arbiter (Beethoven, Shostakovich, Mussorgsky), while others remain unpublished to this day (Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Schumann, Granados).
For a full discography (in Japanese), see
 Filmography (only officially released recordings):
Kapell Remembered, International Piano Archives, College Park (Maryland) 2003 (DVD) [includes Chopin's Mazurka Op. 7 No. 5, Nocturne Op. 55 No. 2 and Funeral March from the Sonata in B flat minor, an excerpt from movement 2 of the Concerto in C major and the finale of the Sonata No. 7 by Prokofiev, and of Mozart's Concerto KV414, as well as two movements from Bach's Partita in C minor].


By category: