The Undefeated

By Michael Kimmelman
The New York Review Of Books
Volume 52, Number 5 March 24, 2005


"The only moments I have when I play that are worth anything to me are when I can blissfully ignore the people I am supposed to be entertaining," wrote the American pianist William Kapell to a friend, the pianist Shirley Rhoads, from Australia, where he was unhappily on tour in 1953.

No me; no silly public to amuse; only the heart and the soul, the world, the birds, storms, dreams, sadness, heavenly serenity. Then I am an artist worthy of the name.... Until it happens, or if it doesn't happen, I am miserable....

More than half a century has passed since Kapell died in a plane crash returning from Sydney. He was thirty-one. Revered by pianists, he is no longer widely familiar to the public, having been largely ignored after his albums went out of print by the 1960s. A generation of American pianists who looked to him as an inspiration—Van Cliburn, Byron Janis, Eugene Istomin, Leon Fleischer, Gary Graffman—supplanted him; then younger players succeeded them.

Was there any greater American pianist born during the last century than Kapell? Perhaps not. Certainly he was the most famous American-born player until Van Cliburn. He was a jukebox star during the 1940s, thanks to his performance of Khachaturian's Piano Concerto, a noisy showpiece that Kapell came to resent, in the way that Rachmaninoff came to loathe his own Prelude in C-sharp Minor.

He was also a stereotype of a native New Yorker: bright, brash, tactless, competitive, funny, cocky, and thin-skinned. He could be exceptionally generous and also nasty. He was a nervous, obsessive person—and meticulous (he kept a diary to record, down to the minute, how long he practiced each piece, toting up the numbers month after month).

As the pianist Eugene Istomin once put it, Kapell was not an easy man, but he was a great one. At the keyboard he sat erect and was both intense and masterful, but his stage mannerisms could be curious and distracting; he waddled impatiently onto and off the platform, and occasionally made twitching movements during the orchestral parts of a concerto, occasionally even pulling a comb from his back pocket to scratch. There was a sense of edginess, a ferocity, about him and his musical sensibility.

"Anger hardly does it justice," Jerome Lowenthal, who was Kapell's student and a teacher at Juilliard, told me recently, recalling Kapell's periodic fits of displeasure during their lessons, which might go on for hours, and which Kapell provided free of charge. "He was poetic, charming, sweet, amusing, but he could also be a very scary person," Lowenthal said. On the only film of him, a segment of Omnibus, the early television program hosted by Alistair Cooke, who was a friend of Kapell's, Kapell looks as if he's ready to murder Cooke when he interrupts the pianist before the end of a piece.

In a postwar world still dominated by turn-of-the-century European pianists, audiences found in Kapell something new: the first modern American star, not intimidated by Old World styles; he was fresh, a stupendous virtuoso, rivaling Horowitz. His play-ing was electric but also lyrical, guided by an instinct for architecture, with a beautifully conceived sense of musical line.

When in 1998 RCA Red Seal produced nine compact disks of Kapell's performances, containing some previously released commercial recordings but also a few recordings never before issued, a new public started to appreciate him. Lowenthal's students at Juilliard, able to hear Kapell for the first time, adopted him as an idol not just for his fleet fingers but also for the quality of his sound, its size and subtlety, and for his dedication to craft, Lowenthal says. Kapell was one of those pianists, like Sviatoslav Richter but unlike Rubinstein, who practiced ceaselessly, including on days when he performed.

Even with the nine disks, which included a complete recital at the Frick Collection in March 1953, aspects of Kapell remained obscure, above all his work during the very last months, when the effects of his increasing devotion to the central German repertoire—Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert—was, as he himself indicated in letters to Rhoads and others, making him into a larger sort of musical artist. Some private recordings from his Australian tour, several hours of music by Mozart, Debussy, Mussorgsky, Chopin, Prokofiev, and others, have turned up.

A retired department store salesman and manager from Melbourne, Roy Preston, recorded Kapell's performances when they aired on Australian radio and preserved the recordings on acetate disks. Preston died in 2003, leaving his disks to a friend, Maurice Austin, who came upon a Web site for Kapell, through which he contacted Kapell's grandson and passed on the recordings to Kapell's widow, Anna Lou Dehavenon, who has pressed BMG, the successor to RCA, to produce a set of two CDs from the Australian material, including Chopin's Barcarolle and B Minor Scherzo (with wrong notes, played at breakneck speed, thrillingly), along with Debussy's Suite bergamasque, a more powerful version of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition than the one from the Frick recital, and the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto.

The sound quality is uneven and there are gaps in some performances (during Pictures and the Rachmaninoff concerto, for example). But these are landmark recordings. Kapell might very easily have sustained a huge career playing splashy "warhorses" like the Rachmaninoff. By temperament, however, he was challenged to attempt the most profound music, and against the adamant instructions of his managers, chose to broaden his repertoire in the last years of his life. In turn this affected the way he played the warhorses, and you hear the results in Australia.

His Barcarolle illustrates his mature temperament: propulsive and big-hearted. Others play it wistfully, delicately. Kapell announces himself from the big opening chord and pushes forward, not rushing, but allowing the melody to unfold energetically, of its own passionate accord. The sound is large and bell-like, without fuss or aggression. It is the opposite of precious. Kapell always sounds youthful and direct. Clear harmonic voicing and long phrases, more than pressing tempos, give his performances their continuity and their modern character.

By "modern" I mean that Kapell was never quaint or coy or morbid (no attempts to achieve eccentric effects and no neurotic tempos). He distrusted charm. Nor was he proper. His "Clair de lune," from the Debussy suite—transparent, heartbreaking—makes the work sound entirely new. The Rachmaninoff concerto, stripped of the familiar theatricalizing tactics and idiosyncrasies of dynamics and tempo, is uplifted by its speed and clarity as well as by its steady rhythm and remarkable lyricism. Kapell's gorgeous sound has its own drama, replacing the sheer volume and expressive excess that in other performances suffice for theatrics. In a curious way, the playing is both exuberant and introspective. Rachmaninoff was said to have removed this concerto from his own repertoire after hearing Horowitz play it. I imagine Kapell's performance might have had the same effect on him.


Kapell was a pivotal figure in piano performance at the middle of the last century, representing the transition from Old World to New. When he emerged during the 1940s, a few giants, all of them born at or before the turn of the century, dominated—besides Horowitz, Rudolf Serkin, and Rubinstein, Moriz Rosenthal, Ignaz Friedman, and Josef Hofmann were still playing. So were Artur Schnabel and Alfred Cortot. Kapell revered Serkin, particularly for his understanding of Beethoven. His relationship with Rubinstein, for whom he first played as a boy, was fraught and ended badly, but it shaped Kapell's approach to music. From Rubinstein he learned a kind of noble attitude, to which he added his own intensity. At times, he was so close in spirit to Schnabel, for whom he also played, that Schnabel once mistook a Kapell recording of Beethoven's Second Piano Concerto he heard on the radio for his own.

Horowitz was the magnetic force with which all pianists had to contend, even when this meant rejecting him. Kapell wrote from California to a friend in 1942:

I'm so weak from tears and shouting, that I can hardly write.... I just heard Horowitz here in Pasadena, playing the 3rd Concerto of Rachmaninoff. The man is such a genius of the piano that it seems inhuman to play like that.... He is not a pianist, he is a magician.

He added: "Compared to Horowitz, we are all...children learning a Czerny exercise." Then, gradually, as he redefined himself as a musician, he changed his mind about Horowitz. "I used to call Horowitz the greatest pianist—now I refer to him as an excellent pianist," he told Lowenthal in 1952, adding, "soon I'll be saying that he plays really quite well." You hear the influence of Horowitz—the powerful technique—but also the distance that Kapell put between himself and Horowitz in his own live recording of the Rachmaninoff concerto.

He wrote to Rhoads about being miserable when he felt unsatisfied on stage. Kapell clearly didn't mind being regarded as an angry young man, as opposed to what he derided as an "English tea table" sort of pianist. As an American in a music world still dominated by Europeans, he sympathized with American composers, whom he championed at a time when his handlers at the Arthur Judson agency argued strongly against his playing anything unpopular like new American music. He nevertheless performed Copland's Sonata (a cerebral and bracing version of it is among the RCA recordings). There was talk about his playing works by Charles Ives and Roger Sessions and Carl Ruggles, and recording a piece by Virgil Thomson. He considered commissioning works by Vincent Persichetti, Ned Rorem, Norman Dello Joio, and Peter Mennin. Kapell received an invitation to play the Barber Sonata, but he declined, saying he was steeped in the classical repertoire, a pity because it would have suited him.

"It seems to me a crying shame that some of the fine pieces in our native literature are not played more often," Kapell wrote to Thomson in 1952.

If we allow the present and lamentable accent on commerce and sensationalism to combine, our whole musical culture will be threatened. The situation today appears very serious and no little bit tragic. The powers that control this noble profession are making nitwits out of the large public. I, for one, am sick and tired of going along in any way with so-called public "taste." Many artists do not realize that by doing so they slowly are dying, creatively; and when artists die, so does art.

That was typical of Kapell: missionary, belligerent, and skeptical.

The reviews of his Town Hall debut were published twelve years to the day before his plane crashed. He visited a palm reader in San Francisco with the pianist Eugene List not long after the debut, and she predicted a meteoric career and a violent death before thirty. She was half-right.

He was born September 20, 1922, into a typically idealistic Jewish middle-class family, the son of first-generation Polish-Russian émigrés who ran a bookstore at 1144 Lexington Avenue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. His mother was artistic and ambitious, his father more passive. Kapell's biographers say that he took up the piano only at ten (late for a future professional), and after just six weeks was chosen among all the students at various settlement schools around the city to play for José Iturbi. In fact, he had had on-again, off-again piano lessons from about the age of seven before he arrived at the studio of Dorothea Anderson La Follette, a gifted teacher who provided him with a technical foundation and who in turn encouraged him to play for the great Russian pianist and Juilliard pedagogue Josef Lhevinne (La Follette's own teacher), for Rubinstein, and for Olga Samaroff.

Samaroff, born Lucie Hickenlooper in San Antonio, Texas, was a remarkable musical figure of the first half of the twentieth century: the first American woman admitted to the Paris Conservatory, the first to perform the complete Beethoven sonatas, she was married for more than a decade to Leopold Stokowski. She had a hugely successful concert career before she became, briefly, a newspaper critic, then, starting in the 1920s, a teacher at Juilliard, where students called her Madam.

She was never really a teacher of technique, and it was said, as a compliment, that her students sounded different one from another. Her stress was on textual fidelity—learning to obey a score—as well as on encouraging students to read books (having grown up with books, Kapell needed little encouragement) and on being well-mannered (here Kapell wasn't so successful).

He was a spectacularly gifted teenager in a hurry when she took him on, upbraiding him for his sloppiness in following scores, which he quickly rectified, then seeing him through var-ious competitions. At eighteen, he played with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, the start of a close relationship—Ormandy would call Kapell his favorite soloist. He lost the Leventritt Competition (Kapell's biographers sometimes neglect to mention this setback), but he won the Naumburg, at nineteen, with sponsorship of his debut as part of the prize.

Kapell's Town Hall program distinguished him: Bach, Chopin, Brahms, Albéniz, Medtner, Rachmaninoff, and Shostakovich. Bach was not quite a staple of piano recitals then; the Brahms C Major Sonata is not a work with which to seduce general audiences, and several of the composers were contemporary. Nonetheless, he had a success, signed a contract with Judson, and played the Khachaturian concerto at Lewisohn Stadium with the New York Philharmonic a few months later (fee: $75). It launched his career. Perhaps aided by a wartime climate already inclined to support new music from America's Soviet ally, Kapell's performance was received as a triumph for America.

Samaroff wrote: "He is going to be one of the great pianists!" But increasingly he would blame her for not encouraging him to take on more in the classic repertoire. She responded to one of his letters:

You were a handful to bring up, Willy dear! Many cards were stacked against me as a teacher. Mrs. LaFollette had given you the foundation of a brilliant piano technique (although your hand position and tone production were far from good!) but your musicianship was practically nil. Whether that was her fault or yours would be hard to prove.... Her own words when she came to see me and asked me to hear you were, "I just can't manage him!"... If I had coached you in strings of Beethoven Sonatas, you would never have become what you are today.

She added: "If you want to hasten the achievement of mastery of your own soul, learn to curb your tongue."

Kapell was partly responding to what detractors called his percussiveness, a frequently reflexive reaction to virtuosos. Noel Straus in The New York Times, after a Carnegie Hall recital by Kapell, derided him as "brash" and "metallic," and wrote: "All of his performances were technically glib and fluent." Samaroff, infuriated, drafted a letter to Straus's editor challenging Straus to prove his points before a panel of experts, but she decided against mailing it. Kapell fumed about such reviews. He wrote in his diary on April 26, 1952, after a recital in Seattle:

Bad criticism. Stupid remarks about "muffing" passage in Mussorgsky. Didn't "muff" a thing. Very discouraged over this dirty profession.

He always got support from Virgil Thomson in the Herald Tribune and Claudia Cassidy in the Chicago Tribune. But as Aaron Copland put it, Kapell was "an easy target for the reviewers of the daily press" because "he exaggerated their importance, ignored the good things said, and remembered only the bad." He added: "I always took this to be a measure of his own seriousness."

Kapell's "percussiveness," as his recordings indicate, was in fact a kind of sonic virility, and his sound was beautiful. He sometimes lost interest in the virtuoso repertoire that he kept playing to satisfy his concert obligations and he played it too fast, too aggressively. Lowenthal remembers playing for Kapell the stormy first move- ment of Chopin's Sonata in B-flat Minor, and Kapell scolding him, while admitting that he had himself played the work similarly. Beside Chopin's printed indication "agitato," Kapell then wrote: "and dolente." At the top of the score, he scrawled: "Dignity, nobility and sadness, undercurrent of great agitation except in second theme," referring to a slower passage, where he inserted "noble line."

Kapell listened to Caruso, to hear how a singer shaped a phrase, and to the cellist Pablo Casals. "Casals as a man is one thing," he wrote to a colleague, "and rather disappointing. But his way with Bach is something to adore." He was also disappointed by Rubinstein, he said, for his lax practice habits and dropped notes, Kapell being fanatical about practicing long hours and following the score. He complained about Rubinstein's laziness to his friends, which inevitably got back to Rubinstein, prompting, first, contrite apologies by Kapell, then magnanimous words from Rubinstein, followed by yet further indiscretions by Kapell. In My Many Years, Rubinstein's often fanciful memoir, he had revenge, recounting when Kapell first came to play for him:

Willy Kapell right away became overfriendly with me and tried to amuse me by speaking badly of his teacher, who happened to be my friend Josef Lhevinne. When I reprimanded him, he burst out: "He doesn't understand me. I have no communication with him. But if you could take me on, I feel I could make real progress." I refused, point blank. "You need discipline, young man."

Still, if Samaroff had been Kapell's surrogate mother, Rubinstein was his musical father. His recordings of the Chopin mazurkas (which occupy more than one full disk of the RCA set) owe much to Rubinstein at the same time that they demonstrate an instructive distinction between the two pianists. Rubinstein recorded the mazurkas in 1939. Kapell no doubt heard that album, since he also listened to Chopin recordings by Horowitz, Friedman, and Rosenthal. Uncharacteristically, he recorded some of the mazurkas at the spur of the moment during breaks in the studio where he had gone to record something else.

It was reported by Sir Charles Hallé, who proved it to Chopin, that Chopin himself played the mazurkas as if there were an extra beat in each measure, exaggerating the expressive lilt before the stretched third beat. How a pianist tinkers with a mazurka's rhythm is an indication of how creative he is. Rubinstein's mazurkas are sublime and colorful. But Kapell plays them with more emotional variety, drawing sharper dramatic contrasts in repeated passages, concentrating more on the main melody instead of on finding inner voices, playing with an almost erotic charge, even when the mood is pensive or sad.

There were other influences on him by this point. The second quarter of the century saw advances in the study of Bach, in the definition of Baroque music, in Beethoven scholarship, for example, with Donald Francis Tovey's "Companion" to the sonatas. Kapell was anxious to broaden his range and his abilities. Wanda Landowska, who had done much to encourage interest in Bach and early music in Europe, moved to America during the war, as did Schnabel, with whom Kapell began to take lessons in 1949. In April of that same year, after a US tour, he started a six-month sabbatical in a rented house on the beach in La Jolla, immersing himself in Mozart sonatas and the Schubert A Major Sonata. The next year, he learned the Bach Partita in D Major. Lowenthal recalls him in California, relaxing at home at the piano, playing Bach and Schubert dances, smoke curling from the cigarette that seemed always to dangle from the corner of his mouth.

Kapell announced then that the only Romantic music that still interested him were two brief passages, one a run in a Liszt Petrarch sonnet, the other in the slow movement of a Chopin concerto. This was no more than a provocative exaggeration, of course; by various accounts, Kapell was never more engaged than when he played the Schubert sonata. No recording of it has yet turned up, unfortunately, although a few brief Schubert waltzes and an impromptu are on the RCA set, reflecting Schnabel's influence, and some lovely Schubert songs are preserved on an album issued by Pearl, with the soprano Maria Stader. Kapell's Mozart (two versions of a slow movement from the B-flat Sonata, K. 570, also on RCA, and the complete sonata on Preston's disks) suggests that he was still trying to master Mozart's music.

But some of Kapell's Bach also survives, including a short clip from Australia. Kapell absorbed the new Bach scholarship and was inspired by the expressive possibilities of ornamentation. He had studied Bach with Samaroff, then rejected her heavily pedaled Romanticism. Although Bach was still not much heard at piano recitals, some pianists—Walter Gieseking, Myra Hess, and Mieczyslaw Horszowski—performed the D Major Partita. Kapell's recording of it on RCA (it was missing the Gigue, which I have been told that Kapell, maniacal about recordings, declined to approve for release) suggests he would have been one of the great Bach interpreters. He anticipates Glenn Gould, who made his debut in New York two years after Kapell died. Who knows how different the music scene would have been were Kapell still around then and performing Bach? Punctilious, searching, robust, his partita is magisterial, as impressive as his version of Liszt's Mephisto Waltz, with which he was inevitably more closely identified.

The deepening of his art in these last few years was recognized. Jascha Heifetz and Gregor Piatagorsky became anxious to record with him. When Jack Pfeiffer, the RCA producer, called him in California one afternoon to ask whether he knew the Brahms D Minor Violin Sonata because Heifetz wanted to record it the next day, Kapell said yes, then stayed up all night to learn it. The recording, exultant and showing great feeling, was made in Hollywood in 1950; it explains why Heifetz said he could never forgive Kapell for dying young.

Three years after making that album with Heifetz, Kapell wrote to Shirley Rhoads from Australia, where he found audiences listless and critics uninformed:

I think greatness in art is something you come upon after only yearning and pain, and a deep sense of being in a dark tunnel. Greatness in art is not something you tell yourself you have. It is the oasis, the greatness, the vision, or whatever you want to call it, after travelling the vast desert of lonely and parched feelings. After this, the oasis. And the older a musician gets who has once seen this oasis, the more he wants to live there all the time, so the more frequent are his attainments of greatness and vision.

He added:

Any true artist at bottom must be an escapist. Because look to where he or she escapes! Schubert Impromptus, Chopin Barcarolle, Beethoven Op. 111, Bach, Mozart, Schumann, the last movement of the Copland Sonata. Was life ever like that? Of course, children give an emotion similar, and in a way even stronger than any piece of music. But life itself is a hideous mess, and aside from a few loved ones, and dear friends one loves, it is best to steer clear of the hatred and evil of most present-day occupations. And music, as a profession, is one of the worst in this sense.

"How I wait for that plane home you have no idea," he told Rhoads. Kapell was berating "madhatter" critics to a reporter at the airport, swearing he would never return to Australia, when he boarded a British Commonwealth Pacific Airline DC-6 that flew from Sydney to Fiji to Canton Island to Honolulu to San Francisco, where one of the plane's wings clipped a mountain on the descent.

Copland dedicated his Piano Fantasy, which he had been promising to Kapell, to his friend's memory. Alistair Cooke delivered a eulogy the next week on his BBC radio program, Letter from America. Kapell, he said,

died a lucky man. For not many men come into middle age hav[ing] been fortunate enough to go through to the end without, in some forgivable way, compromising their best. He ended as he began—a cocky, humble apprentice to the master he hoped to be. He left no money, but when the wing of his plane touched that mountain, he went out like Bunyan's pilgrim—undefeated.

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