SUSPENSE BUILDS TOWARDS THE CATASTROPHE
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.