Last notes of a prodigy

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

A Last­ing Record

By Stephen Downes HarperCollins, 314pp, $30 Also avail­able as an eBook. See the free eBook pro­mo­tion be­low this re­view.

STEPHEN Downes’s A Last­ing Record is the poignant, al­most for­got­ten story of ac­claimed Amer­i­can clas­si­cal pi­anist Wil­liam Kapell, who died, aged 31, in an air­liner crash while re­turn­ing home af­ter an Aus­tralian per­for­mance tour in 1953.

Apart from the au­thor’s ex­haus­tive re­search into bi­o­graph­i­cal de­tail about Kapell, there’s the amaz­ing ac­count of an ec­cen­tric Mel­bourne mu­sic lover mak­ing the only known record­ing of Kapell’s fi­nal con­cert broad­cast in­clud­ing, in a bleak irony, Chopin’s Funeral March.

Downes is an ex­pe­ri­enced Mel­bourne-based jour­nal­ist and au­thor of numer­ous books on mu­sic and food. In A Last­ing Record Downes, a frus­trated con­cert pi­anist him­self, writes knowl­edge­ably and in­for­ma­tively about mu­sic.

The book opens dur­ing a Dou­glas DC-6’s land­ing ap­proach to San Fran­cisco air­port in 1953 be­fore the plane slams into fo­gen­shrouded Kings Moun­tain killing all on board. The au­thor’s de­tail of the flight track — an unau­tho­rised ‘‘ short cut’’ — the plane’s in­te­rior, cock­pit and ra­dio mes­sages are all ut­terly be­liev­able as the sus­pense builds to­wards the im­pend­ing catas­tro­phe.

Half of the book traces Kapell’s life and mu­si­cal ca­reer from his child­hood in a poor area of New York, where young Willy be­gan pi­ano lessons aged 10. In a chap­ter en­ti­tled Prodi­gious Prodigy, Downes re­counts that Willy’s ca­reer was launched when he was 19, win­ning the Philadel­phia Orches­tra’s youth con­test fol­lowed by the Wal­ter W. Naum­burg award.

The praise from crit­ics was lav­ish: he was ‘‘ gen­er­ously gifted’’ and ‘‘ his tech­ni­cal equip­ment is that of a true vir­tu­oso’’. The next three years saw the pi­anist’s me­te­oric rise: in the 1944-45 sea­son, aged just 22, he played with 18 or­ches­tras.

In 1945 Kapell un­der­took an Aus­tralian tour spon­sored by the Aus­tralian Broad­cast­ing Com­mis­sion and af­ter a con­cert in the Mel­bourne Town Hall about 500 pa­trons waited at the stage door to cheer him. Of the tour Downes com­ments: ‘‘[ Aus­tralian] crit­ics used the word ‘ bril­liant’ un­til it was numb.’’

Back in the US Kapell kept up a pun­ish­ing sched­ule, prac­tis­ing six to eight hours daily and tour­ing ex­ten­sively.

In Jan­uary 1947 he met Re­becca Anna Lou Mel­son, also a pi­anist. They mar­ried in 1948 and had two chil­dren. In 1953 the ABC ar­ranged a sec­ond Aus­tralian tour and Kapell wrote that it was a bru­tal sched­ule of 37 con­certs in less than 14 weeks.

In Aus­tralia Kapell’s health be­gan to suf­fer. Chronic pre-per­for­mance ner­vous­ness wors­ened: one con­cert was can­celled be­cause of ‘‘ ner­vous ex­haus­tion’’ and he devel­oped up­per-body mus­cu­lar trou­ble.

The crit­ics — whose opin­ions the hy­per­sen-

Pi­anist Wil­liam Kapell

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