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William Kapell Recordings Turn Up Down Under

In the 1940s, William Kapell was classical music's next great pianist.

He won his first competition at age 10. By the time Kapell was in his early 20s, he was famous.

In 1953, he spent 14 weeks touring Australia, playing 37 concerts. But on the return home, he was killed when his plane crashed outside of San Francisco. He was only 31.

By the 1960s, Kapell's recordings were out of print. Only the most dedicated of collectors hunted them down in secondhand stores, and William Kapell was largely forgotten.

But long before TiVo, MP3s or even cassette tapes, there was an Australian music fan named Roy Preston. He avidly recorded concerts broadcast on Australian radio, including several from Kapell's last tour more than half a century ago.

Those recordings have just been issued commercially in a two-CD set called Kapell reDiscovered: The Australian Broadcasts. Washington Post music critic Tim Page has written extensively about Kapell — he wrote the liner notes for the new album — and spoke with Andrea Seabrook about the collection.

"His career [was] like a vineyard, and we're getting the absolute most fine blend of wine that came from Kapell," Page says.

Because Kapell reDiscovered documents the last recordings of the young pianist, Page says they also show off Kapell at the peak of his career arc.

"Well, it seems strange to speak of 'early,' 'middle' and 'late' Kapell, since he only had a real career going for a little over a decade," Page says. "But when he was very young, he had this smoldering, passionate, extraordinary quality — a fantastic virtuoso. But he was not playing the world's greatest music; it tended to be a lot of Russian show-off pieces."

As Kapell matured, though, Page says he started to reach out to composers like Chopin, Mozart and Bach, and his style began to shift. "And he was just playing more and more magnificently, and becoming not only a great virtuoso, but a very, very great musician," he says.

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