The William Kapell Edition

Mike Silverton

[November 1998. Originally appeared in La Folia 1:4.]

Under its RCA Red Seal (full price) imprint, BMG Classics has issued a nine-CD survey of pianist William Kapell — studio recordings released and unreleased, broadcasts, recitals public and private, concert performances, several transfers from 78’s, a smattering of fragments and alternate takes, as well as a find: a 22-minute interview, interlocutor unknown. And the news is all good.

Kapell perished in an air crash in 1953, age 31. A mystique attaches as a matter of course to a handsome virtuoso so untimely snuffed. It’s doubtful that anyone with an interest in our century’s piano celebrities can have avoided hearing the name, uttered as a rule in laudatory tones. Quite apart from the private and non-commercial material, as so much of Kapell’s presence has gone out of print, this elaborate preparation serves as a confirmation and invaluable memoir. However, the evanescence of classical music on disc an unhappy given, who dares predict how long the set here discussed will be available? Any discophile worthy of the title well understands that he who lingers loses.

As to the production: a stiff and sturdy slipcase encloses an attractively printed 66-page, tri-lingual booklet consisting of three essays, a producer’s note, and tribute by Van Cliburn. The inserts cover their respective discs’ contents. As an especially nice touch, each CD’s label bears a different photograph of Kapell. In sum, a thorough and obviously loving job. Under “ADD Mono,” all nine traycards repeat: “Digitally remastered in 20-bit technology using a customized Studer transport with Cello electronics and universally compatible UV22tm Super CD Encoding,” i.e., for the technologically disengaged, a high plateau of sonic consistency, with the understanding, of course, that sow’s ears remain sow’s ears. No legitimate post facto procedure tries to upgrade the nature of the beast. (For a start, it cannot.) I regret even the minimal, non-invasive attempts at noise suppression. It’s all — the snap, crackle, pop, and hiss — part of history, is it not? If I appear to linger on attention to detail, I can only convey a friend’s lament. He’d bought some Leider reissues (on another label) to discover to his great annoyance an absence of the verse, in German or translation, the music sets. Absurdly skimpy notes are not all that rare.

Have you, like me, ever watched some revered old movie only to find it a silly, insubstantial thing? And wondered, moreover and perhaps more disturbingly, what manner of critical sentimentality supports its bloated reputation? I have to confess to an indifference, till now, to the Kapell legend. The thing of it is, I never troubled to listen. To Kapell, that is. Other “legends” long gone from the scene — conductors, vocalists, instrumentalists — have seemed to me now and again sub-Olympian. Why, I wondered, the deification. And especially as an audiophile do I suffer monophony less than gladly. Don’t bother: I’ve already acknowledged the attitude as unacceptably shallow. So call this a repentance. You’ve only to listen to Kapell, with Dorati and the Dallas (in 1949 at the State Fair’s Music Hall, of all places!) at work on Prokofiev’s Third Concerto. The opening movement, pyrotechnical in character, is served here in a fashion, but for the hearing, one would have thought superhuman. Elsewhere, in Volume Eight, Kapell gives substance to the need he expressed to critic-composer Virgil Thomson for new music’s encouragement with a luminous performance of Copland’s 1941 Piano Sonata in a 1953 recital at New York City’s Frick Collection as that disc’s subject. In addition to the Copland, the concert included (or, as we’re speaking of recording as an insect frozen in amber, includes) Chopin’s op. 61 Polonaise-Fantasie, Mussorgsky’s Pictures, a Scarlatti sonata, and Chopin and Schumann morceaux.

In writing about this live recital, Volume Eight’s annotator, Allan Evans, could as easily have addressed the entire set’s significance. “Ever since William Kapell’s death, dedicated collectors have untiringly searched for surviving recordings, following leads like determined investigators. Of the many recitals he gave throughout the world annually, recordings of only two complete programs have surfaced: one in poor sound from Connecticut College, and the performance heard here, a broadcast from The Frick Collection … that is being issued for the very first time…” in rather good sound, by the way, and the Chopin is to die for.

In abdicating elitist (gasp!) directions in these multicultural times, the majors have taken sanctuary in their archives. We live in the Age of Reissues. This Kapell assemblage is rather more than merely that, especially as so much of the set is unique. Only the collector who’s spent hundreds, perhaps thousands of dollars on his Kapell shelf is perhaps annoyed or regretful, and even he, I suspect, will spring for the treasures here discussed. For piano buffs, a must; for the merely curious, a good bet.

PS: I’ve the first two-CD set of RCA Red Seal’s Toscanini / NBC Symphony / Beethoven symphonies (Nos. 1-4), and here too particular care appears to have applied. “Digitally remastered using UV22tm Super CD Encoding,” etc. My Leider man, Maurice Richter, tells me that the Deutsche Grammophon five-CD set of historical vocal recordings I assigned him also sounds remarkably good. Look for that review perhaps in issue 1:5. (Maurice is a deliberate worker, if you take my meaning.)


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