William Kapell Recordings Turn Up Down Under He was one of the most promising pianists of his generation when a 1953 plane crash ended his life at the age of 31. But thanks to an enterprising Australian music lover, a new two-CD set captures Kapell at the peak of his career.

William Kapell Recordings Turn Up Down Under

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In the 1930s, William Kapell was classical music's next great pianist. He won his first competition at age ten. The prize? A turkey dinner with the pianist Jose Yturby(ph). By the time Kapell was in his early 20s he was famous, brilliant, darkly handsome, the next big thing. Then, in 1953 a plane crash took his life. He was only 31 years old.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: By the 1960s, Kapell's albums were out of print. Only the most dedicated of collectors hunted them down in secondhand stores. William Kapell was pretty much forgotten.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: Until now. What you're hearing is music captured half a century ago. It was recorded from the radio on scratchy, acetic discs then tucked into an enthusiast's collection. It's from Kapell's last tour.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: The recording is just out commercially. It's called "William Kapell reDiscovered: The Australian Broadcast." Longtime music critic Tim Page teaches at the University of Southern California. He's written extensively about William Kapell and he wrote the liner notes for the CD.

Tim Page joins us now from the studios of WYPR in Baltimore. Thanks for speaking with me today.

Mr. TIM PAGE (Music Critic): Oh, it's my pleasure. And it's wonderful to hear this music.

SEABROOK: It is. What made William Kapell stand out?

Mr. PAGE: Well, it seems strange to speak of early middle and late Kapell since he only had a real career going for a little over a decade. But when he was very young, he had this smoldering passion of extraordinary quality, a fantastic virtuoso. But he was not playing the world's greatest music. Tended to be a lot of Russian showoff pieces.

What happened though was as he grew older and more mature he got more and more interested in the music of Chopin and of Mozart and Bach and then contemporary American music. A marvelous performance of the Copeland sonata, for instance. And he was just playing more and more magnificently and becoming not only a great virtuoso but a very, very great musician.

And what's amazing about these recordings is they're from the absolute peak of his career.

SEABROOK: Tim Page, can you point to an example in this recording that shows why the classical music world was so enamored of Kapell in the 1940s and early 50s?

Mr. PAGE: Well, the Prokofiev(ph) seventh sonata, third movement.

SEABROOK: Let's put it on.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. PAGE: This is from that last set of recordings in Australia, but it's the kind of music Kapell made his reputation on. What you hear here is steel and power and precision and energy. I mean, it's just, like, the most incredibly powerful pianistic machine one can imagine. You know, the music itself is not necessarily great music but it's one of these pieces that can be put across by a magnificent performance, which this most certainly is.

But what's really wonderful on this new set is the fact that we get to hear him in Bach and we get to hear him in Mozart and we get to hear him some of the great Chopin, such as the "Barcarolle." It's so lyrical, it's so passionate, it's so beautiful, it's still got all the muscle of the early recording but it's got this gentleness and it's just sheer musicality.

SEABROOK: Let's play the Mozart Sonata. This is "Sonata No. 16 in B Flat."

(Soundbite of song, "Sonata No. 16 in B Flat")

SEABROOK: What is it that you love about this recording?

Mr. PAGE: Well, it seems to me an absolute model of how Mozart should be played. It's full of feeling but it's never sentimental. There is attention to form but it feels in no way constrained. I mean, this is the sort of Mozart playing I dream about and I don't hear it very often.

(Soundbite of song, "Sonata No. 16 in B Flat")

SEABROOK: Who made these recordings?

Mr. PAGE: These were taped off Australian radio, which, you know, was one of those wonderful sort of outposts of the British empire back in 1953 where everything that was classical got played and got played all over the country a little bit like the CBC in Canada during the 60s and 70s. And they were just somehow recorded off the air by a fan who kept them.

Then 50 years after Kapell's death they show up and they represent - you know, I think this a little bit like the career like a vineyard almost. They were getting the absolute latest and most fine blend of wine that came from Kapell. This is the very end of his career and he's come a great long way. And one can only wonder what would've happened had he lived past the age of 31.

SEABROOK: So, recording you can kind of savor it, roll around your mouth.

Mr. PAGE: Just glorious.

SEABROOK: Tim Page, how would you compare these performances by William Kapell to young pianists working today?

Mr. PAGE: Well, I think Kapell is a startlingly modern pianist. I hear a lot of the elements that are prized by musicians today. Composure, a sense of form, a sense not to let the ego to get too far involved with the music and let it speak for itself. So, I think there are a lot of pianists today who would like to sound like Kapell. I'd certainly like to sound like Kapell.

But very, very few are going to come remotely close to this. It's pretty close to perfect pianism, and I don't use that word often.

SEABROOK: Longtime music critic, Tim Page. He teaches at the University of Southern California. Thanks very much for speaking with us.

Mr. PAGE: Thank you so much.

(Soundbite of music)

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