Your only chance to see a shortlived American genius

Your only chance to see a shortlived American genius


norman lebrecht

October 24, 2016

This is the only known film of William Kapell, who died in an air crash in 1953, at the age of 31.

He had made quite a few recordings for RCA, but this was his only preserved record on film.

You will be gripped.

william kapell

Is that Alistair Cook presenting?



  • Jeffrey Biegel says:

    So beautiful to see this. Thank you, Norman. The Chopin Nocturne has his trademark vocal qualities, elasticity and breathing within the phrases, and still so spontaneous. Even in this video, we can hear the tonal palette he owned. His legacy however brief is tremendous.

    • Petros LInardos says:

      Mr. Biegel, what do you think of the instrument in this recording? I can’t help hearing a more attractive tone, compared to more recently made Steinways. Not sure how to describe it: maybe a fuller tone with a softer edge. (I don’t mean to question Kappell’s mastery: I am totally blown away by those three performances.)

      • Jeffrey Biegel says:

        Good question indeed. Unless one is in the room listening to the full range of sound, dynamics and aural effect of the instrument, it is difficult to critique the sound of the piano based on this aged video. However, one can instantly sense a very rich bass sonority and warm singing sound in the mid-range of the instrument. There is never quite the equivalent of being in the same room as the performance. For me, the instrument sounded best in the Chopin Nocturne, with his intuitive and spontaneous reaction to the naturally flowing vocal lines and the breathing within the phrases much as a singer might interpret the material.

  • Olassus says:

    Yes, Cooke!

    • Sue says:

      Wasn’t Cooke just one of the most pompous, cold and supercilious individuals ever to appear on television? God he was awful.

      • Geoff says:

        He did his BBC ‘Letter from America’ for years and was loved by many for his voice and delivery.

      • Robert Holmén says:

        Since you ask, no… he wasn’t.

        • Frederick West says:

          Entirely in accord with you. An excellent social, cultural and political observer who could trounce most of the one-dimensional commentators of today.

      • Peter Jenkins says:

        Go and listen to ‘William Kapell Remembere (a 29 min. doc. on Youtube – in 3 parts) and there you will obtain both an appreciation of William Kapell’s artistry and better understanding of his close friend Alistair Cooke’s refined personality.

        • Sue says:

          Cooke was utterly pompous and patronizing. So WW2 BBC. His introduction to the film “The Three Faces of Eve” are so 19th century, paternalistic and pompous. I wouldn’t mind if he was incisive and intelligent but he has no opportunity when his method of presentation is so false and condescending. He makes Simon Schama look relaxed and accessible.

      • George Kramer says:

        You already made up your mind, so no point in convincing you otherwise. Go watch Oprah.

  • Adrian Nimmo says:

    What a great pity that AC spoke before the end of the Chopin and also that he didn’t give WK chance to speak.

    • Sue says:

      That’s the point though; it’s always all about Cooke.

    • George Kramer says:

      This was common in early TV: it was a cue to the director or engineer. His mic wasn’t supposed to be “hot” at that point; either he or the engineer forgot to turn it off. There were no second chances on live TV back then, nor was there a censor button for most programs.

  • pooroperaman says:

    I think the England cricket captain has better things to do at the moment.

  • Daniel F. says:

    1. Leon Fleisher said that the two great American pianists of the 20th century were Willie Kapell and Leonard Shure and that, at the time of his death, Kapell was beginning to become more interested in, and perform more, of the typically Schnabelian repertory.

    2. Does anyone recall Sid Ceasar’s hilarious send-up of Alistair Cook? The persona was named “Aristotle Cookie”? The great Sid absolutely nailed this guy.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Really beautiful playing…. well-ordered and spontaneous in the same time, and infused with real feeling without any affectation. Only the great can do that. Obviously, people like [redacted] fail miserably in comparison.

    • John says:

      Mr Borstlap, although we could guess the names of many pianists to whom you might be referring, would you care to tell us precisely which you mean?

      • Sally says:

        Actually, there was quite some quarrelling upstairs and downstairs about that comment and when I was instructed to post it, I redacted the name myself because I think the miserably failing are, obviously, [redacted] and [redacted].

  • David Oberg says:

    I only know Kapell’s wonderful playing via several CDs in my collection. (He was before my time.) The film is riveting. What a loss. By the way, on Sesame Street, Alistair Cookie (a.k.a. Cookie Monster) was the host of “Monsterpiece Theater.”

  • Cyril Blair says:

    Is there any footage of Dinu Lipatti playing?

  • S Daniel says:

    Really like the selection of pieces. Good to see such a skilled, nimble pianist. Lots of expressive playing without a bunch of unneeded drama thrown in.

  • Rich C. says:

    Speaking of early deaths, who was the pianist who dropped dead on stage while performing with the Philadelphia Orchestra? I seem to recall it happened in the ’50s at Carnegie Hall.

  • esfir ross says:

    Simone Barere died 1951. He was also Felix Blumenfeld student that prefered SB over Vladimir Horowith.
    I took lesson with Harold Logan that was also William Kapell teacher and waited for WK to come for dinner that fatal day. H.Logan studied with Egon Petri and told me that he helped to egon Petri to get job in Mills college in Oakland,CA

  • David Osborne says:

    Could I use this opportunity to also put in a plug for Noel Mewton-Wood, an Australian near contemporary of Kapell who also died tragically young? One of the saddest tales you will ever hear.

  • Gerald Robbins says:

    The exquisitely refined and gloriously brilliant sound of William Kapell’s piano playing in his magnificent recording of the Beethoven Second Piano Concerto in collaboration with Vladimir Golschmann conducting the NBC Symphony was the first recorded sound of the piano I ever heard as a baby. It was because of that record, that I decided that I had to and wanted to become a pianist. His Beethoven Second Piano Concerto recording and Artur Schnabel’s immortal recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Concerto, the “Emperor” in collaboration with Frederick Stock conducting the Chicago Symphony, further substantiated my passionate love for the piano. I had to play the upright Steinway in our living room that had been given to us as a long-time temporary loaned gift to our family by my dear Aunt Sonya, to keep for her. She had been sadly forced to let go of her instrument because it was too large for her apartment. The generous loan of that instrument extended until well past my university years, when eventually my aunt asked for it back. This same aunt incredibly gave a Steinway O parlor grand piano to me as a Bar Mitzvah birthday present when I had just turned 13. This very generous gift was such a privilege and blessing for me to receive, and still remains with me today All the formative years of piano study and performance that I pursued, I owe to the inspiration and passion for the piano I experienced as a child and continue to feel and experience for over half my life: that which compelled me to become a concert pianist: the Genius art of the greatest American Titanic Master of the piano, William Kapell. Proof of this statement: Just listen to his immortal recordings such as his interpretations of the Beethoven Second Piano Concerto, Khachaturian Piano Concerto, the Rachmaninoff Second and Third Piano Concerti, the Rachmaninoff Paganini Rhapsody, the Chopin Second and Third Piano Sonatas, the Chopin Mazurkas, the Bach Partita No. 5, the Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata with cellist Edmund Kurtz, the Brahms First Viola (Clarinet) Sonata with violist William Primrose, the Copland Variations, the Brahms First Piano Concerto, the Shostakovich First Piano Concerto, two movements of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto (recorded when he was 15) and various piano works by Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, in fact, his entire discography which was simply amazing in its sheer number during Kapell’s short life of 31 years. Listen to these masterworks performed by, undoubtedly, the greatest of all American pianists and you will be uplifted, inspired, and excited by a truly great Master, William Kapell.

  • Jonathan Elvey says:

    Marvellous. Charles Rosen wrote something to the effect that there are only two ways to play the piano, loud and soft. But as Mr Biegel says, the tonal palette here is remarkable. Kapell seems to produce nothing less than a different SOUND for each piece. To we amateurs this is simply inexplicable.

    • Daniel F. says:

      Well, that’s certainly the way Charles Rosen played the piano, especially in his later years when he was writing more and practicing less. I heard him play the Brahms Handel Variations, and it was a torturous amalgam of heartlessness, soft and loud, and wrong notes.

  • Jonathan Elvey says:

    I’m glad to read this about Rosen’s writing. I thought I was the only one! PS hallo to my old friend Petros Linardos.

  • christopher Czaja Sager says:

    Would put Byron Janis certainly on the list of the post WWII north American excellent pianists.I prefer his Prokofiev and S.Rachmaninoof to WK’s…Janis’ ‘lineage’ through Rachmaninoff’s heirs, Horowitz and Moiseiwitsch and the Josef Lhevinne pupil, Adele Marcus.
    Personally had the honor of playing the KV.491 on the first posthumous W K. memorial with the Florida Philharmonic in 1956.

  • joe salerno says:

    Ward Marston will be bringing out a new CD set of live performances by Kapell on his label ( in late November. Included are the Strauss Burlesque with Reiner/PSO, the complete Connecticut College recital of 1951, some newly discovered solo items, a Schumann Quintet, and a Bach Concerto for 4 pianos. There may be other items as well. Most of these recordings have enjoyed only limited circulation among collectors. The Strauss and Schumann, along with much of the solo material, are, to my knowledge, issued for the first time anywhere. Should be quite a thrilling acquisition for Kapell enthusiasts everywhere.