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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Rediscovering a Lost Pianist

Classical Review

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In an era of young classical titans, whose performances had a wider resonance in a world that was still listening, William Kapell was a rising star. The American pianist’s ascent was cut short by a plane crash in 1953. He was only 31.

The last recordings he made have been located and collected on reDiscovered (released by Sony BMG), a two-disc set culled largely from radio broadcasts during Australian tours in the summer and fall of his final year. I say “largely” because the producers of this set weren’t content to leave history alone. A missing section from a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 was “patched” with a recording Kapell made five years earlier. Similarly, bits and pieces missing from Mussorgsky’s The Great Gate of Kiev and Bach’s Suite in A Minor are plugged from other sessions, granting the performances an unnecessary illusion of seamlessness.

The Australian recordings themselves, though scratchy, can’t conceal the pianist’s formidable artistry. Kapell was fluent on his instrument to be sure. He also sounds driven, masterfully empathetic with the emotional as well as the technical challenges of his concert repertoire. Listening can be exhausting. One imagines that for Kapell this music represented a rocky summit, a dangerous sonic Matterhorn he was determined to climb at all costs.