The American pianist, William Kapell, was born in New York of Russian Jewish descent. He studied in New York with Dorothea Anderson La Follette, then at the Philadelphia Conservatory with Olga Samaroff. He went to the Juilliard School when she relocated there. He won his first competition when he was 10; the prize was a turkey dinner with the pianist José Iturbi. In 1941 he won the Philadelphia Orchestra's youth competition and the Naumberg Award. He debuted in New York through his prize from the Naumberg Foundation; this debut recital won him the Town Hall Award for the outstanding concert of the year by an artist under 30.
William Kapell He achieved fame in the next few years. He was a serious artist from the beginning - practicing up to eight hours a day. A national recital career quickly developed, leading to a recording contract with RCA Victor's Red Seal records. One of his enthusiasms was for the recently composed Piano Concerto in D flat major by Soviet composer Aram Khachaturian, which he frequently played. Kapell played it so convincingly that his recording became an enormous hit. Because it is an extroverted and flashy work, he gained a reputation as a specialist in such music. His recorded legacy shows that he performed in the appropriate style from graceful renditions of W.A. Mozart to powerful Prokofiev. By the late 1940's, he had toured the USA, Canada, Europe and Australia to immense acclaim and was widely considered the most brilliant and audacious of young American pianists. In 1947, he made a happy marriage to the former Rebecca Anna Lou Melson, with whom he had two children. With maturity, a new sense of spaciousness made itself manifest in Kapell's pianism and he began to set aside time for work with the artists he most admired, studying with Artur Schnabel and playing with Pablo Casals and Rudolf Serkin.
William Kapell spent his last summer in Australia, where he played 37 concerts in 14 weeks, appearing not only in Sydney and Melbourne but all over the continent -- in places with names like Bendigo, Shepparton, Albury, Horsham and Geelong. It was in Geelong that Kapell played his last performance on October 22 shortly before setting off on his doomed return flight to the USA. The plane hit Kings Mountain, south of San Francisco, on the morning of October 29, 1953; all of the crew and passengers were killed instantly.
William Kapell was one of the most promising American pianists of the post-war generation, producing a few recordings that have attained legendary status after his untimely death. There was some tendency to typecast Kapell as a performer of flashy repertory; his technique was exceptional, but he was a versatile pianist, and could also give memorably graceful performances of W.A. Mozart. And the fascination with this powerful musician continues. Pianists such as Eugene Istomin, Gary Graffman, Leon Fleisher and Van Cliburn, and classical-fusion jazz pianist Suezenne Fordham, among others, have acknowledged Kapell's influence, and tapes of "live" performances still circulate among collectors. Kapell's widow - now Anna Lou Dehavenon, a social anthropologist in New York - deserves much of the credit for helping to keep her husband's name alive.
A nine-disc survey on RCA contains Kapell's Frédéric Chopin mazurkas and sonatas, and Sergei Rachmaninov and Aram Khatchaturian concertos. It also has many lesser-known items, some of them first releases, including Dmitri Shostakovich preludes, Scarlatti sonatas, and the Copland Piano Sonata. F. Chopin's Sonata No. 2 is profound, moody, and complex; the mazurkas are brought to life with subtle accents. The set sold remarkably well throughout the world and brought Kapell's work to a new audience. VAI album contains broadcast recordings of the S. Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 3 and Khatchaturian's Piano Concerto. Arbiter album features part of L.v. Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 and D. Shostakovich’s Concerto No. 1, and it includes Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, which also appears in the RCA set, as well as on VAI album, the last from an Australian recital of July 1953.
The critic Harold Schonberg once considered Kapell the most promising American pianist of the post-World War II generation. His style was direct, clear, and energetic; his technique impeccable; and his repertoire eclectic and adventurous.