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ClassicsOnline Home » PROKOFIEV, S.: Piano Concerto No. 3 / KHACHATURIAN, A.I.: Piano Concerto (Kapell) (1946, 1949)
When William Kapell was killed in a plane crash at the age of 31 on 29th October 1953 the world was robbed of a great talent. He studied the piano with Olga Samaroff, at one time the wife of Stokowski, at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music and then at the Juilliard School. At the age of nineteen his career took off when he won the Philadelphia Orchestra Youth Competition. He also won the Naumberg Award, which supported his New York début at Town Hall, where he also gained the award for the most outstanding musician under thirty. He then toured America, North and South, Europe and Australia.
With his dynamic performances and Byronic beauty, it is not surprising that RCA Victor signed William Kapell in 1944. Although he played a wide repertoire that included Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Copland, Barber, Debussy and more, he became known for his performances of the romantic Russian repertoire; in particular Rachmaninovs Second and Third Concertos and the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, Prokofievs Third Concerto and Khachaturians Piano Concerto. All the most eminent conductors of the day wanted to collaborate with him and he performed concertos with such illustrious musicians as Eugene Ormandy, Leopold Stokowski, Leonard Bernstein, Fritz Reiner and Serge Koussevitzky.
Kapells dynamism was ideally suited to the Third Concerto of Prokofiev. On the 22nd November 1946 he performed it at Carnegie Hall with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Ormandy. The sixty-year-old Olin Downes, influential critic of the New York Times, applauded the work as much as he did the performance. "There was another brilliant success at this concert. It was William Kapell in his performance of the Third Piano Concerto of Prokofiev. He ignited it! The music is electrical. It would give Prokofiev a significant place in modern art if he were only a temperament and not a composer at all! The concerto is superbly assured, audacious, sometimes sardonic. It has also a special exoticism. Orchestra and piano vie with each other, playing with the ideas as capriciously and wantonly as a cat with a mouse. Nothing is impossible, in the sense of technique or effect, and the greatest extravagances are committed with a grin and a tongue in the cheek. Mr. Kapell played with unlimited fire and elan, with a tone that sometimes became hard, but which, even in this, matched in a way the musics glitter and insolence. The piano part is a tour de force. There was technique to burn, and in the performance an authority and excitement not to be resisted. A young musician of exceptional attributes was ablaze at his task."
It must have been a great success, as three months later Kapell and the same forces returned to Carnegie Hall with the same work on 26th February 1947. At this time the composer and critic Virgil Thomson was writing for the New York Herald Tribune. He was outspoken and direct. "Prokofievs Third Piano Concerto is our centurys most successful work in that form. Stravinskys is more original, but it is hard to take. Those of Rachmaninov are more popular, but they lack intellectual distinction. Khachaturians and Shostakovichs essays in the genre fall even lower in that respect. And hardly any of the others come off at all. This one is full of good material, and its expressive variety is immense. It juxtaposes tenderness, violence, irony and the expansion of pure energy in a most invigorating way; and its musical ingenuity is inexhaustible. William Kapells performance of the piano part was powerful, beautiful and in every way striking. A certain maturity has appeared in this artists work that is to its advantage. Last night he showed no febrile violence, only controlled emphasis. And he neither pounded or played false notes. His rendering of this difficult and exacting work was that of a master pianist and a master musician."
Presumably whilst on tour, Kapell recorded the concerto at the Dallas State Fair Auditorium in Texas on 7th January 1949. On this occasion the conductor was Antal Dorati, who had been in charge of the Dallas orchestra from 1945 and would go on to take the helm of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra from 1949 to 1960.
Aram Khachaturian wrote his Piano Concerto in 1936. The American première of the work was given at the Juilliard School in New York in March 1942 with Maro Ajemian as soloist. Efrem Kurtz, conductor of the New York Philharmonic summer concerts, suggested Kapell learn it: he did in one week. He played it many times and became associated with the work.
RCA recorded the concerto complete on 1st January 1945 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Koussevitzky. For some reason, possibly technical, these sides were never published and not until 19th April 1946 was another session arranged at Symphony Hall, Boston. Virgil Thomsons passing comment on the work quoted above can hardly be denied nor can the opinion of Harold C. Schonberg in his review of 22nd November 1946 headed Kapell plays new Concerto: "The Khachaturian Piano Concerto, which was played last night in Carnegie Hall by William Kapell and the New York Philharmonic, is a harmless enough piece. The Armenian composer apparently knows a Russian Hollywood, where he has learned sound effects and all. He has hitched a ride on the folk-song bandwagon and whales lustily on his toy drum. Sometimes the results are pleasant, but never is there the intellectual or impressionistic synthesis of folk material that Bartók, say, achieved. This concerto, actually, is not representative of Khachaturians better side. It is quite empty, with Liszt in the pianists right hand, Rachmaninov in his left, and an inconsistent orchestral part that has little to do with either. The composer has drawn heavily on the Oriental-Armenian melos swathing those exotic scales in an orchestral coat of many colours. There is, of course, nothing like skillful orchestration to cover a lack of essential musical ideas. Kapell played the difficult piano part with thunderous bravura, vigour and enthusiasm. Sometimes vigour became noise, but at least he took command of the orchestra and bestrode the climaxes. His articulation is clear, he runs up a pretty set of interlocked octaves, and technically he is as effective as a riveting machine."
It is hard to believe that this work became a jukebox favourite in the years immediately after the Second War and after giving many performances of the work Kapell dropped it from his repertoire.
Although he never recorded it commercially Kapell played the First Concerto of Shostakovich, another work suited to his dynamic temperament and vigorous style. At one of his earliest sessions Victor recorded him in three short preludes from the composers Op.34. The disc could be used as Kapells calling card, as it displays many facets of the young pianists talent, wit and humour in No.24, a beautiful legato line in No.10 and a digital dexterity in No.5 that is quite breathtaking.
We must celebrate the fact that these recordings survive the existence of the artist, recordings that will perpetuate his talent for future generations to enjoy and marvel at.
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PROKOFIEV, S.: Piano Concerto No. 3 / KHACHATURIAN...