Last notes of a prodigy
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