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Unia piano TC812101
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Giuseppe UNIA (1818-1871)
Opere per pianoforte
Grande Fantaisie sur des motifs de l'Ernani de Verdi, Op 43 [12:32]
Le diable boiteux - Grand galop diabolique, Op 45 [2:56]
Il Vessillo d'amore Valzer, Op 57 [7:41]
Pensiero fuggitivo, Op 72 [4:17]
Notturno Patetico, Op 111 [5:56]
Casta Diva Norma da La pluie des fleurs, Op 117 [6:35]
La Cloche du village, nocturne sentimental, Op 126 [5:00]
Barcarolle Celebre de C.M. Weber, Op 133 [3:59]
Passeggiata sul lago d'Orta, Barcarola Notturno, Op 135 [5:14]
Lowely, Redowa Capricieuse, Op 157 [4:11]
Marcia Funebre, Op 158 [7:49]
Divertimento brillante sull'opera Marta di Flotow, Op 160 [8:10]
Massimiliano Génot, Andrea Vigna-Taglianti (piano)
rec. 2020, Studio Discografico Ronco Biellese, Italy
All works appear to be first recordings
TACTUS TC812101 [74:28]

Despite my interest in 19th century virtuoso pianist composers, I had never heard of Giuseppe Unia until this disc appeared for review. The notes provide a most useful background to his training; he studied with Hummel and others and ultimately ended up as “Court Composer to His Majesty the King of Italy” but, despite this exalted position, he has almost completely disappeared into obscurity. I looked him up in my music library and found no mention of him whatsoever. As for the pianists on this disc, I have heard of Massimiliano Génot and have his excellent CD of Transcriptions from Verdi and Wagner (by Brassin, Génot, Golinelli, Raff, Jaëll and Bulow) but not of Andrea Vigna-Taglianti, who shares the programme on this disc.

The disc starts with Unia’s very grand, difficult and virtuosic fantasy on themes from Verdi’s Ernani. I am familiar with Liszt’s paraphrases on this opera (catalogued as S.431a and S.432) and this work contains several themes in common with those. However, Unia’s construction is entirely different and he uses a lot of the themes which Liszt did not. The work itself is full of the many virtuoso tricks of the trade: lots of tremolandos, Thalberg’s three-handed effects, big leaps and some phenomenally difficult playing. All is dispatched with the right level of wit and charm, making for a suitably jolly piece of music. If you want to hear something different from the more familiar paraphrases composed in the mid-19th century then this is a very good place to start.

There was a fad for writing “Galop” pieces in the mid-19th century; many composers decided to join in the fun and write such works - and here we have Unia’s take on it. It’s a delightful showpiece, perhaps not a master-work but worth a listen for its sheer exuberance and comic value. It is dispatched here with considerable virtuosity and stands well alongside other examples of the genre.

Thirdly, we have another original work subtitled “Il Vessillo d'amore Valzer” – a work that might be sneeringly described as “salon music”; however, it is actually a well-constructed, witty little waltz and certainly deserves to be better known. The central minor key section is especially clever and provides a good contrast to the cheerful countenance of the rest of the work. It is played here with a jovial bounce and Mr. Génot is clearly enjoying himself. It is music to put a smile on your face and the main theme will probably stick in your head - don’t say I didn’t warm you.

Next, the pianist Andrea Vigna-Taglianti plays another original work, “Pensiero fuggitivo”, for which, despite my learning Italian, I cannot find a suitable translation – “Fugitive Thinking” perhaps? The piece falls neatly into three parts: a frantic opening, then a more restrained middle section which cleverly leads back to the opening music once again. The opening theme is confident and sounds a little like a Chopin-Liszt hybrid with a dash of Schumann thrown in. It is a powerful work which contains plenty of music of interest and pianistic difficulty but presents no problems to Mr. Vigna-Taglianti (who, incidentally also provides some of the detailed cover notes, in cooperation with the other pianist on this recording).

Massimiliano Génot returns for track 5, a piece in total contrast to the preceding “Pensiero fuggitivo” – in a rather neatly wrought Nocturne which has an amiable opening very much in the mould of Chopin that gives way to a lovely second theme that again will stick in your head. This theme is nicely developed and evolves into a more tempestuous middle section with plenty of repeated chords in the bass and some scrunchy harmonies. The piece doesn’t sound that hard until the middle where things get much choppier for the pianist, before things relax into a heartfelt ending. There is some lovely control of the piano, especially in the closing minute.

Andrea Vigna-Taglianti returns for Unia’s transcription of Bellini’s most famous aria from Norma – “Casta Diva”. This has been transcribed by various pianists; perhaps the best known version is by Thalberg (magnificently recorded by the barrister and pianist Paul Wee on the BIS label, reviewed here and here). Unia’s version obviously follows the same harmonies; however, his solution to the accompaniment, especially in the embellishments, is somewhat different and very interesting. He also cannot resist varying the theme slightly and creates a magical work which is excellently played. There are plenty of difficult trills and some very light-fingered playing as the work reaches its conclusion. The subtitle “The Rain of Flowers” seems an appropriate descriptor for this pretty

Another little Nocturne follows on track 7, subtitled “The Bell in the Village” and opening with a very obvious bell ringing which puts me in mind of the clock striking in Alkan’s “Grande Sonate 'Les quatre âges'” (Op 33, the 3rd movement – “Un heureux ménage”). Overall, this piece sounds to me like something that Field would have written had he lived into this time period. There are some disconcertingly similar passages in the more frantic middle section which sound like a direct lift from one of Liszt’s “Réminiscences des Huguenots” (after Meyerbeer, S.412) and various hints at other Liszt paraphrases (particularly “Réminiscences de Norma”, S.394). However, the whole thing holds together well and is a rather charming work, very well played. The ending is particularly effective.

Track 8 is an actual transcription, this time of a Barcarolle from Weber’s Der Freischütz and sounds extremely difficult. It contains a lot of leaping about and pyrotechnics after an innocuous opening. This opening tune is cunningly amplified with increasingly difficult right-hand figurations and slowly builds to a climax with plenty of use of Thalberg’s “Three hands effect”. The final iteration of the theme blasts out between repeated chordal accompaniment and some powerful octave passages in the bass. This is a superb piece and is given a wonderful performance by Massimiliano Génot.

“Passeggiata sul lago d'Orta, Barcarola Notturno” follows with some lovely, sensitive playing once again from Génot. This starts with a pretty tune which develops beautifully as the work progresses. Again, the primary influence here seems to be Field or Chopin and the Barcarolle nature of the work is very clear. This is another delightful little work with hints of darkness throughout in the bass and, more noticeably, just prior to the ending, which evaporates in a wisp of sound.

Track 10 is called “Lowley” – Redowa Capricieuse and starts with an ambiguous opening before it breaks into an entertaining, Mazurka-like tune, played with appropriate capriciousness here by Andrea Vigna-Taglianti. This leads to an equally enjoyable middle section with lots of leaping about and three-handed effects for the soloist to negotiate. This is really jolly and is another piece that will put a smile on your face. The work is constructed almost like a series of dance episodes, ending with an amplified statement of the opening tune with a charming coda to conclude it.

The penultimate track of the disc is a sombre funeral march, written in response to the poetry of Giacomo Leopardi (to whom Unia was related, by marriage). This is a bleak little piece and the sparseness of the writing in the opening reminds me somewhat of Alkan although he didn’t write too many tremolandos in his works, whereas Unia seemed to like using them. The sombre accompaniment low down in the bass adds to the underlying sadness of the work. This grows to a powerful conclusion before a respite in the middle with the arrival of a wistful Chopinesque section which somehow manages to sound sad while being firmly in a major key. This calmer atmosphere doesn’t linger before the funereal music, with the addition of notes in the very lowest register of the piano to form a grim, resolute conclusion to this fascinating, emotive work.

Finally, we have another operatic paraphrase – this time a sort of medley on Flotow’s most famous work Martha (a work with which I am not at all familiar). The subtitle here is ‘Divertimento brilliante’ and that is certainly the case with this piece. It opens with solemn chords (that remind me slightly of Liszt’s Totentanz S.126) interspersed with flourishes which, after about 1’45’’ or so of development lead to a jaunty tune. This is then amplified and enhanced with some difficult work for the left hand and plenty of passionate and powerful playing. This reaches a natural conclusion with some of Unia’s favoured tremolandos before another march like tune emerges and bounces along merrily for a couple of minutes. This too is developed and varied in a most interesting way before leading to yet another theme which trickles along happily. This is again varied and ultimately leads to a crazy, virtuosic conclusion to the piece. I do like this piece and it certainly contains plenty of happy music to cheer you up.

I have to say that some of the music here is not perhaps what could be described as top drawer. There are, however, some splendid little works which do not deserve the utter neglect into which they have fallen. The recording is clear and bright but perhaps too closely miked which means that there is some distortion at the top end and the odd pedal sound; however, this doesn’t detract from the marvellous playing by both soloists and the interest inherent in the music. Both pianists make a super job of Unia’s what is in places incredibly difficult writing and I do hope this inspires a rehabilitation of this particular composer as I would really like to hear more of his music.

Jonathan Welsh

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