William Kapell (1922-1953) was a brilliant American pianist whose life and career were cut short by the crash of an airplane on which he was returning from an overseas tour in October 1953. He was barely 31, but was already acknowledged as the leading American pianist of his generation; some have said he would have been the greatest pianist of the 20th century.
Born in 1922, Kapell studied piano with Dorothea Anderson LaFollette at the Yorkville Settlement School in New York and with Olga Samaroff at the Philadelphia Conservatory and, later, at the Juilliard School. In 1941, he won both a Naumburg Award and the Philadelphia Orchestra Youth Concert competition. This gave him opportunities for major debuts both as a recitalist and as a player of concerti. In 1942, he was given the Town Hall Endowment Series Award, providing him with yet another Town Hall recital during the 1942-43 season. He then signed a contract with RCA Victor and recorded a wide variety of repertoire for that company. (All of Kapell's RCA recordings have been reissued in compact disc format.)
He toured North America annually thereafter, performing both with major orchestras and as a recitalist. He became an advocate of contemporary American piano music, and seems to have been especially prized by American composers. In 1945, he played a series of concerts in Australia, beginning to build an international reputation. He toured South America three times (1946, 1948, and 1951). He seemed to have a particular affection for music of South America that is reflected in his personal collection of piano music. He first played in Europe in 1947. In mid-1953 he performed in Tel Aviv, played at Casals's Prades Festival, and gave his final series of performances during the course of a three-month Australian tour. Returning from Australia, his plane crashed into a mountain moments before its scheduled landing in San Francisco. (This biographical sketch from the International Piano Archives website.)
This is the only known video footage of pianist William Kapell. He performs the Scarlatti Sonata in E major, K.380 (L.23), the Chopin Nocturne in E flat, op. 55 no. 2, and Gato, an Argentine dance by Emilio A. Napolitano.
And as an encore, here is his legendary performance of Liszt's Mephisto Waltz no. 1, recorded when he was only 22 and still considered among the best of this work.
William Kapell: A Documentary Life History of the American Pianist by Tim Page, available at amazon.com, as well as the CD collection below: