Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Department Store Salesman and His Gift to History

America has thus far produced two great pianists; namely, Murray Perahia and William Kapell.
Perahia has emerged as one of the world's premier artists, with defining performances of Mozart, Bach and Chopin, to mention but a few of the composers he represents. He is now in his middle age, and has produced many recordings which, of course, are readily available.
The other pianist (and they both grew up in New York), is William Kapell.
If his name is less familiar to you, it is simply because he lived only 31 years, and has been gone for over a half century.
Kapell left only a handful of recordings in a tragically brief career.
Recently, some recordings he made just weeks before his death, have emerged, and tell us of a talent with gigantic power and even greater promise.
The story of these recordings will fascinate you:
Kapell journeyed to Australia in the spring of 1953, and gave almost forty concerts in just a few weeks, with most performances in Melbourne and Sidney and others in little hamlets sprinkled along the way. Some of these recitals took place in large rooms, rather than the usual large hall.
A department store salesman, Roy Preston, decided to record a number of these concerts from his radio, as a small number of Kapell's performances were broadcast throughout Australia. Obviously, not being an audio engineer, Preston produced recordings of poor quality; however, these recordings are documents that represent the immense gift that this young pianist possessed.
These recordings are noisy and scratchy , and the listener must find ways to "cut through" this detriment in order to allow the fantastic reality of Kapell to emerge.
The most provocative aspect of Kapell's playing is the nature of intensity which ultimately turns out to be his trademark, outside of the unequaled pianism already in place.
There is no question in my mind that, had he lived on, Kapell would today be considered one of the two or three greats of his generation.
The cruel irony:
After some 8,000 miles of flying, and only about three miles short of the San Francisco airport, a wing on Kapell's plane brushed a mountain top and crashed, snuffing out a promise which can be given us only a handful of times in any century.

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