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William Kapell's memory lives on Resolution Trail, CD and YouTube

The pianist died in a 1953 plane crash near San Francisco. He is remembered on a plaque there, and his work enjoys a resurgence on CD and YouTube.

September 16, 2012|By Richard S. Ginell, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Pianist William Kapell
Pianist William Kapell (File photo, File photo )

KINGS MOUNTAIN, Calif. — Nestled in the heavily wooded mountains 30 miles south of San Francisco is the El Corte de Madera Creek Open Space Preserve — a gorgeous piece of redwood country, an out-of-the-way alternative to overcrowded Muir Woods to the north. If you park on Skyline Boulevard and hike about a mile down the Fir Trail — once a logging road — you will come upon Resolution Trail, a narrow path that winds its way down through a series of steep ravines populated by redwoods and madrone trees.

Often this region is shrouded by fog, but on this given day the sky is bright blue and the sun illuminates blinding contrasts between the dark woods and the clear spots. It is quiet, except for the rustling of leaves and one's own footsteps.

Continue farther down the trail, and there are jolting reminders of why some of us have chosen to hike this, of all the many trails in the forest. On a rock to the right, there is a scattering of small metal parts — iron loops, springs, a steel cable, a piece of insulation. Look to the left down the ravine and you can see crumpled scraps of sheet metal.

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This collection of surviving debris was deliberately left alone on-site by the authorities, a heartbreaking reminder of the plane crash on a foggy morning in 1953 that took the life of pianist William Kapell — who would have been 90 on Sept. 20.

The Douglas DC-6 plane carrying Kapell, 10 other passengers and eight crew was a commercial flight from Sydney, Australia, only a few minutes away from landing at San Francisco International Airport. The plane flew too low, clipped the tips of some tall redwoods and hit the side of a steep slope. No cause was definitively found; there was low-lying fog, but all instruments on the plane were in working order and it had been refueled in Hawaii. The Civil Aeronautics Board report concluded that the cause might have been "the failure of the crew to follow prescribed procedures for an instrument approach."

Only 31, with dark, brooding good looks and a fanatical drive for perfection, Kapell (his friends called him Willy) carried the promise of becoming the Great American Pianist in his powerful hands when the plane went down — and surviving recordings strongly suggest that Kapell was already the Great American Pianist. His breakthrough 1946 recording of the Khachaturian Concerto with Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony created a sensation in its time, establishing the New Yorker as a fire-breathing purveyor of big, usually Russian, barnstorming vehicles.

Kapell's startling entrance in the first movement of the Prokofiev Concerto No. 3 will make you sit up bolt-straight in your chair, and the sheer kinetic energy, pointed detail and grip he had on the piece's structure may be unsurpassed.

And he was growing, fast. Impatient with being typecast as a bravura Romantic, Kapell was reinvestigating J.S. Bach, Mozart and Schubert, keeping up with American modernists like Copland, Ives and Sessions while still giving his Russian repertoire all he had. His lucid, crisply ornamented Bach indicates that he was ahead of the pack in applying period-performance research.

Yet it is astonishing to realize that Kapell was a forgotten man almost immediately after his death. One reason, perhaps, was that he wasn't fortunate enough to live into the age of stereo. Within a few years of his death, his handful of released recordings sounded dim and aged when set against their competitors, and by the end of the 1950s, none were in print. Throughout the '60s and '70s, only one LP, an ironically titled anthology, "The Unforgettable William Kapell," was available.

Another reason may have been that the memory of Kapell's playing was soon eclipsed by a generational flood of other young, hugely gifted American pianists — Byron Janis, Gary Graffman, Leon Fleisher, Earl Wild, Eugene Istomin, Eugene List, Leonard Pennario and, especially after his Cold War-era triumph in Moscow, Van Cliburn.

The way Kapell died is something difficult to contemplate; the hike down Resolution Trail (named after the plane) brings that home powerfully even now, nearly 60 years after the fact.

Happily, Kapell's stock did rise after the shock of his death wore off, though this took decades. A reissue of the Khachaturian and Prokofiev concertos in the mid-'80s started the ball slowly rolling again, along with bootlegs of live performances. A big push came in 1998 when all of Kapell's approved recordings were gathered into a nine-CD box, supplemented in 2008 by "Kapell Rediscovered," a two-CD set of long-hidden acetates documenting his final 1953 Australian tour that contains, among other treasures, a knockout performance of Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 3.

Most accessibly of all, Kapell now has a large presence on that 21st century playback medium, YouTube. There are lots of audio postings of his recordings, an interview and, most precious of all, the only surviving video, a 10-minute 1953 recital from Alistair Cooke's "Omnibus" series where Kapell plays Scarlatti, Chopin and an Argentine dance (listen where Cooke erroneously breaks in, thinking the Chopin is over, and the volatile Kapell just does keep his cool to finish the piece).

All 19 names of those who perished in that DC-6 are listed on a polished granite plaque that was recently erected near the head of Resolution Trail. And whenever I look at the skyline of trees in the mountains above Palo Alto, I hear Willy Kapell playing the Prokofiev concerto in my head — indomitable, triumphant after all.

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