SUS­PENSE BUILDS TO­WARDS THE CATAS­TRO­PHE

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - John Mcbeath

sitive Kapell al­ways read — vac­il­lated to a ridicu­lous ex­tent: he was ‘‘ a vir­tu­oso pi­anist’’ yet one whose ‘‘ hard arid play­ing’’ was ‘‘ aus­tere and chilly’’. One re­view, which de­scribed Kapell’s ‘‘ moods twitch­ing like a Times Square neon’’, prompted the pi­anist to think of can­celling.

By the end of his fi­nal per­for­mance — of the tour and for all time — in Gee­long, Kapell had devel­oped a dis­like for Aus­tralia and par­tic­u­larly its mu­sic crit­ics, whom he called ‘‘ rats’’, an­nounc­ing he would never re­turn.

The book’s next chap­ter in­tro­duces

the ec­cen­tric Roy Pre­ston, liv­ing in a Mel­bourne in­ner-sub­ur­ban worker’s cot­tage and work­ing as man­ager of the cos­met­ics de­part­ment at the Myer Em­po­rium. Pre­ston was an unas­sum­ing in­di­vid­ual whose pas­sion was mu­sic, es­pe­cially clas­si­cal, and he owned a home recorder ca­pa­ble of mi­crogroove record­ing on 16-inch (40cm) ac­etate discs.

Again Downes cred­i­bly re­con­structs an imag­ined scene as Pre­ston makes the only known record­ing of the last ABC broad­cast per­for­mance of Kapell play­ing Funeral March. For copy­right rea­sons all ABC tapes were erased af­ter broad­cast.

More than 20 years later Pre­ston gave that record­ing to mu­sic pro­moter Cliff Hock­ing, who took it to the US where, in 1987, it was in­cluded on a new CD along with ear­lier Kapell per­for­mances. Pre­ston bought the al­bum and, although uncredited, was de­lighted.

By 2003 Pre­ston was in a nurs­ing home, fac­ing his last months, and a carer had the task of clear­ing out his junk-strewn cot­tage.

That took a year but the chap­ter Trea­sure Found de­tails how, among the de­tri­tus of Pre­ston’s life, six ac­etates of var­i­ous Kapell per­for­mances are dis­cov­ered. Th­ese even­tu­ally are sent to Kapell’s widow and fam­ily. About 21/ hours of pub­lish­able mu­sic was ob­tained and re­leased in a two-CD set in 2008, Wil­liam Kapell Re­dis­cov­ered: The Aus­tralian Broad­casts.

Read­ers may find the de­tail in this book is some­times ex­ces­sive: cheque num­bers, Pre­ston’s army dis­charge num­ber or that a cer­tain pas­sage con­tains 1103 pi­ano key­strokes and other minu­tiae seem su­per­flu­ous. Downes is a stick­ler for rules, writ­ing tempi and stac­cati when the os plu­rals are now com­mon and sanc­tioned by the Ox­ford English Dic­tionary.

Th­ese are mi­nor crit­i­cisms, how­ever, and the book will ap­peal to any­one re­motely in­ter­ested in clas­si­cal mu­sic, es­pe­cially the pi­ano, but will also in­ter­est a wider au­di­ence be­cause of its poignancy, and the de­tec­tive story as­pect of this Aus­tralia-re­lated tragedy. Pre­ston would have ap­proved.

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