By Daniel J. Wakin

When the 31-year-old pianist William Kapell, one of the last century's great geniuses of the keyboard, was killed in a plane crash in 1953, he was returning from a concert tour in Australia. Now, a cache of privately made recordings from that tour has surfaced, a find that music lovers are calling an incalculable treasure, given Kapell's legendary status and dozen-year flicker of a career.
"It's as if somebody were to find a dozen new paintings by Rembrandt or a lost film of Charlie Chaplin," said Daniel Guss, director of the classical catalog for BMG Music, the successor to RCA, for which Kapell recorded.
The emergence of these more than three hours of recorded music is a tale of serendipity, of a collector's passion and of a music lover's act of selflessness. And when the recordings, preserved on three 16-inch acetate discs, are turned over to Kapell's widow at a New York restaurant tomorrow, a new chapter will begin: the question of whether they will be commercially released.
For now, the few in the piano world who know about the recordings' existence are savoring the idea of hearing not only new versions of works Kapell recorded commercially but also performances of works entirely new to his discography, whether on RCA or in pirated editions.
Kapell, while not widely known today, is revered by pianists of all stripes, and his death hit the classical-music world with the force of the plane crash that killed the pop musicians Richie Valens and Buddy Holly. He joined the realm of postwar musical meteors cut down in youth, like the conductor Guido Cantelli (36), the tenor Fritz Wunderlich (35) and the pianist Dinu Lipatti (33), who all now live frozen in preciously guarded recordings.
Born in New York and raised on the Upper East Side, Kapell was the leading light of a crop of great American pianists who emerged after World War II, including Gary Graffman, Eugene Istomin, Byron Janis, Van Cliburn and Leon Fleisher.
Harold C. Schonberg, the late New York Times critic, wrote in his book "The Great Pianists" (1963) of Kapell's "spectacularly honest technique (never any bluff or coverup), a forthright musical approach and a fierce integrity."
"His playing had that indefinable thing known as command," Schonberg added, " and he was well on his way to being one of the century's important pianists." His greatness came from completeness, in the view of critics - not just phenomenal technique, acute attention to detail and profound rhythmic security but a deep sense of lyricism and passion in his playing and integrity in his musicianship.
Mr. Graffman, who was friendly with Kapell, said, "He was the No. 1 - there was no question about it - pianist of his time."
The recordings are very much part of a personal drama for Kapell's widow, Dr. Anna Lou Kapell-Dehavenon, an anthropologist. Dr. Kapell-Dehavenon, 76, who as a young pianist fell in love with Kapell and was married to him for five years before his death, has carefully tended the flame of her husband's musical memory, never begrudging the release of bootleg recordings.
"It's breaking me to pieces," she said of the discovery of the discs, which she has heard in an elementary CD dub. "When I listen to these performances, it's as if he's alive and in front of me. You can imagine what this does to me 50 years later. He was inseparable from the music."
Virtually all Kapell's commercial recordings and some noncommercially recorded works appeared in a nine-CD set issued by BMG Classics' RCA Red Seal line in 1998.
Mr. Guss said it was too early to determine whether BMG would release the new recordings. The pending merger of BMG and Sony's recording arm has created uncertainty over future projects. But Mr. Guss said he would like to see the music issued. "We've missed out on 50 years of recordings," he said. "This is just a small payback." To judge from the dub, he added, the quality is uneven, but restoration appears possible.
The cache, which is being delivered by old college friends of Dr. Kapell-Dehavenon who happened to be traveling in Australia, includes versions of pieces Kapell had already recorded, like the Prokofiev Concerto No. 3, Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," the Bach A minor Suite (BWV 818) and a Chopin E flat Nocturne (Op. 55, No. 2).
The new renditions are invaluable, given Kapell's rapid development as an artist, piano experts said.
"His maturing was exponential in the last couple of years," said Allan Evans, a historian of the piano tradition, a teacher at the Mannes College of Music and an informal adviser to Dr. Kapell-Dehavenon. "He was shedding his past as an interpreter of Russian war-horse pieces, like Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, and deepening his study of Beethoven and Bach, Mozart and Schubert.
"Above all, Kapell was at his absolute best in concert."
But the jewels are works never heard in Kapell recordings. These are said to be Prokofiev's Sonata No. 7, Debussy's "Suite Bergamasque," Mozart's entire Sonata in B flat, K. 570 (a second movement is in the RCA set) and two pieces by Chopin: the Barcarolle (Op. 60) and the Scherzo in B minor. There is also what is said to be a spectacular version of Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 3, although an earlier, inferior live performance was briefly on the market.
"He was a very great artist in his prime, playing at his best, before his career was tragically interrupted," Mr. Evans said. "This is great music, and he was plugged into its spirit. Any manifestation of this is invaluable for the sake of culture and our understanding of what this music is all about."
The recordings were preserved thanks to a retired department store salesman and manager in Melbourne named Roy Preston. Starting in the late 1940's, Preston obsessively recorded concerts transmitted by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on the radio, using a home recording machine with a needle that cut grooves into acetate discs.
Preston, as a founding member of the Theater Organ Society in Australia, befriended a junior member, Maurice Austin. In a recent telephone interview, Mr. Austin described how his friend meticulously indexed the recordings and even made his own polyethylene sleeves for the discs.
Mr. Austin said he had tended to Preston, who had no children and lived alone, as his health declined, driving him to concerts, putting him in a nursing home and cleaning out the house. He was eventually given the collection of more than 10,000 LP's, CD's, 78's and acetate discs.
Mr. Austin said that one of his friend's stories had intrigued him. Preston said he had given away an acetate disc to someone and was later tickled to discover music from it on a bootleg CD in a record store. It was a piece from Kapell's last concert, on Oct. 22, 1953: Chopin's "Funeral March" Sonata. Mr. Austin searched through the collection and found the other Kapell discs, and he decided they belonged with Kapell's family.
"There's a person at the other side of the world who is alive, has a close relationship to these recordings, and it was just right," Mr. Austin said of his motivation.
He searched the Internet for the Kapells and finally managed to get an e-mail through to a Kapell grandson, Joshua Kapell. Mr. Kapell said he received the e-mail on Oct. 29, 2003, exactly 50 years after his grandfather's plane crash on the approach to San Francisco. Mr. Preston died two months later, at 88.
Mr. Austin, who has since struck up an e-mail frienship with Dr. Kapell-Dehavenon, said almost apologetically that he felt proud to have done what he did and that he had no interest in compensation. He said he asked only one thing.
If the music is ever released commercially, he wants a copy of the CD.


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