Magazine article The Spectator

Music: The Greatest Pianist You've Never Heard Of

Magazine article The Spectator

Music: The Greatest Pianist You've Never Heard Of

Article excerpt

William Kapell was an American concert pianist with the looks of a male model and the fingers of a wizard. He played the concertos of Rachmaninov at dashing speed but with delicate precision. He was snapped up by RCA in 1944 at the age of 22 and the world's leading conductors queued up to accompany him.

In October 1953 he toured Australia. On his last night there he visited Jascha Spivakovsky, a pianist who had escaped the Russian pogroms as a child, settled in Berlin and then fled to Melbourne after Richard Strauss warned him that he was on a Nazi hit-list. He spent the war helping fellow émigrés escape. That was one reason he never signed a recording contract. Also, Australia didn't have a classical label. When Spivakovsky died in 1970 he hadn't made a single record as a soloist.

That night, Spivakovsky played Kapell the slow movement of Chopin's 'Funeral March' Sonata. The next day, Kapell headed back to the US, telling reporters at the airport that he wouldn't be coming back -- some Australian critics had been rude and he was notoriously thin-skinned. As his plane approached San Francisco in the fog, it hit the treetops and crashed; everyone was killed.

Kapell's all-too-few recordings are treasured. Spivakovsky has been forgotten. In his prime he performed with Fürtwängler, Knappertsbusch, Szell and Monteux. His Carnegie Hall debut in 1948 was a triumph. The Daily Telegraph called him 'one of the greatest pianists of our time'. After hearing him play Beethoven's last piano sonata, Neville Cardus wrote him a fan letter -- 'you entered the sublime world of the work with an intent, unselfconscious eloquence which brought me close to tears'.

But how are we to judge these verdicts if we can't hear him? Well, now we can. The first Jascha Spivakovsky CD was issued in the spring; another is coming in October. Why has it taken so long?

Actually, the fact that they're appearing at all is a small miracle. These are mostly home recordings, made by Jascha's son Michael in the 1960s while his father was rehearsing for concerts. Spivakovsky didn't always know he was being taped. Michael would tell him, 'I'm just checking for sound levels, Dad.'

The mono reel-to-reel tapes, stored in an old sea chest, quickly deteriorated; they were copied on to new tapes, but they also started to disintegrate. …

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