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
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
"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
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
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
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
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.