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Uninsky Europe MC1058

Alexander Uninsky (piano)
Concert Tours in Europe 1951-1962
MELOCLASSIC MC1058 [79 + 70]

Aaron (Alexander) Uninsky was born into a musical family in Kyiv in 1910. When he showed promise his teacher persuaded his parents to send him to the Conservatory where he studied with Sergei Tarnowsky (1883-1976) whose pupils had included Vladimir Horowitz and Anatole Kitain. Alexander and his family suffered in the Ukrainian war of independence and emigrated to Paris; it was around this time that he changes his name, abandoning Aaron due to the anti-Semitism he had suffered in Ukraine. At the Paris Conservatory he studied under another great teacher, Lazare Lévy (1882-1964) and in 1927 he won the conservatory prize for his performance of the outer movements of Chopin's B flat minor sonata, not surprising if it was anything like the performance included here. From his early recitals onwards he included the works of Stravinsky and Prokofiev and he considered the latter, along with Ravel and Debussy to be one of the three most important 20th century composers.

He became friends with Prokofiev when the composer attended a 1931 performance of his C major Concerto after which Prokofiev declared Uninsky was too good – I will never play it again in public. The performance included here dates from 1951 and is a good example of his forthright and impulsive style as mentioned in one of his early reviews that declares he has a little too much temperament (and) brio but in common with many other reviews goes on to praise his extraordinary technical facility. I am taken with his control of dynamics and there are many times we can hear his finely graded crescendi and diminuendi especially.

It is clear that his temperament can drive him on a little too much and there are times where one feels he is yearning to push on if only the orchestra would surge forward with him and in what is otherwise a gripping and passionate performance of Rachmaninov's Paganini rhapsodie from 11th April 1951 there are several points where the ensemble falters, notably in the big arpeggios of variation 22. The day before this performance he played Chopin's B flat minor Sonata, opening with a grandeur that is the equal of anyone and continuing in this bold, grand style that might perhaps be a little unremitting for some; much as I enjoy his big boned style I don't often feel he is out to charm us in quieter passages. What is impressive is his rhythmic execution, clearly demonstrated in the scherzo and his ardour in the outer sections of the funeral march where something of Rachmaninov's vision of the approach and passing of the funeral cortège can be recognised.

His Chopin E minor concerto wins for effortless virtuosity though again I am not always engaged by his lyrical playing, which at times suffers from an ever-so prominent left hand. The close of the Romance sounds somewhat perfunctory; Uninsky seems unwilling to give in to Chopin's smorzando marking but there is some delicate playing here and the rondo is buoyant and lively. Like Moritz Rosenthal in his 1930 Odeon recording Uninsky plays the unison triplets on the final pages in Tausig's supercharged version for interlocking octaves. He was always associated with Chopin though especially so after achieved joint first in the 1932 Warsaw Chopin Piano Competition alongside the blind Hungarian Imré Ungar. Evidently Ungar found this unacceptable so the placing was decided by a toss which Uninsky won; it is a mark of the man that he offered to share first place though Ungar still refused. I wonder if he played this part of the Tausig version in the competition (he doesn't play any of Tausig's other adaptions). Whatever the case it was a piece he played often in concert with conductors such as Nikolai Malko and Willem Mengleberg and he recorded it commercially in the same year as this radio performance though that was with Willem von Otterloo and the Hague Philharmonic. Here he is ably partnered by Hungarian conductor Carl Melles during his brief tenure with the RTL orchestra.

For me his 1961 and 1962 performances are marvellous. Apart from the Chopin Sonata there is a Bach C minor Partita that has all the strength of his other playing when needed and features poise, clear lines and relaxed phrasing, the sarabande especially so. In Schumann's Carnaval he brings together this phrasing and huge technique and adds to it a warm-heartedness in the more lyrical music and some striking leggiero playing. His Ondine from 1962 is oozing with character and the figuration shimmers spectacularly; Uninsky was evidently more settled now after the turmoil of his youth and the war years and was now a professor at Southern Methodist University School of Music in Dallas where his pupils included David Golub and Jeffrey Swann.

Uninsky's star has faded somewhat and though you can still find his recordings there are several works here that he did not record commercially. The sound quality is wonderful allowing Uninsky's decidedly full sound and clarity of articulation to shine through. As I often find with Meloclassic releases the notes are excellent, full of biographical information.

Rob Challinor

Fréderic Chopin (1810-1849)
Piano Concerto No.1 in E minor Op.11
Orchestre de RTL/ Carl Melles
rec. 19 Nov, 1958 Luxembourg, Radiostudio RTL, radio studio recording
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini Op.43
Rundfunkorchester Hannover des NDR/Willy Steiner
rec. 11 Apr, 1961 Hannover, Landesfunkhaus NDR, radio studio recording
Fréderic Chopin
Piano Sonata No.2 in B flat minor Op.35
rec. 10 Apr, 1961 Hannover, Landesfunkhaus NDR, radio studio recording
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Piano Concerto No.3 in C major Op.26
Limburgs Symfonie Orkest/Andre Rieu Snr
rec. 29 June, 1951 Maastricht, Staargebouw NCRV, radio studio recording
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Partita No.2 in C minor BWV.826
rec. 16 Apr, 1961 München, Lothstrasse, BR, radio studio recording
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Carnaval Op.9
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Ondine from Gaspard de la Nuit
rec. 15 Feb, 1962 Paris, Studio RTF, radio studio recording

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