Fanfare Magazine’s Review

Giuseppe Unia, piano works

“The record company Tactus is known for its explorations into lesser-known repertoire. (In fact, just recently I worked with another recording, of Biagio Pesciolini’s Il Terzo Libro di Madrigali, Venezia, 1581, an absolutely stunning, revelatory disc.) Continuing this tradition, the present disc presents a string of world premiere recordings of music by Giuseppe Unia (1818–1871). In the 1860s, Unia was court pianist-composer to “His Majesty the King of Italy.” The catalog of his published works runs to some 200 works, many of which are transcriptions or fantasias on operas. 

This music is not what you might expect, not from the titles and not from the implications of the opening of the Grande Fantaisie sur des motifs de l’Ernani de Verdi, either. It starts like a Lisztian paraphrase, but there are later passages that seem to tend towards Minimalism. There are also passages of great delight, and Verdi’s cantabile melodies come across beautifully in this performance. The delightful, frothy Le diable boiteux is a “Grand galop diabolique” that seems in search of an orchestration, but is nevertheless a salon piece par excellence and played with great charm by Génot. Frankly, if orchestrated it would not be out of place at a New Year’s Day concert. We have a waltz right next door, as it happens, full of tremolos and contrasts that could easily be terraced orchestration: Il Vessillo d’amore then morphs into a traditional waltz, beautifully articulated by Génot, who finds real beauty in the moments of quiet. Of deeper intent is the Pensiero fuggitivo, op. 72, performed by Andrea Vigna-Taglianti. 

It is Génot who takes over for the Notturno patetico, op. 111, a gentle piece that occasionally sounds progressive for its time. This is a haunting piece, well worth hearing. Bellini’s “Casta Diva” from Norma will need no introduction, but Unia’s transcription has a splendid simplicity, which translates as honesty and truth. It is a study in line, and this time it is Vigna-Taglianti who provides the magic. 

There is certainly no missing the bell of La cloche du village in that piece’s opening measures; it poses quite the interpretative challenge (in fact, it could so easily sound like the pianist hammering a nail into the listener’s head). As it happens, Vigna-Taglianti is most sensitive; he has the most lovely touch in the mid-high treble, while creating a superb bed of sound in the middle-lower registers. When the bell recurs towards the end, Vigna-Taglianti persuades us it can be a moment of the most exquisite beauty. 

It is the music of Weber’s Der Freischütz that furnishes the material for the Barcarolle célèbre de C. M. Weber, in the context of this program acting as the perfect prolongation of the village bells. And from a “barcarolle célèbre” we move to a “barcarolla notturno”: the dreamworld of the post-Chopinesque Passaggiata su lago d’Orla, one of Unia’s many nature-inspired pieces. And do hang around in this latter piece for the surprise, throw-away ending. 

I love the fact that the “Capriceuse pour piano,” Lowely, Redowa is possibly a tribute to a type of Bréton dog (of which the female dedicatee was particularly fond, apparently). Like all of Unia’s music on this disc, the piece is superbly crafted. Rather more serious is a Marche funèbre, op. 158, its subtitle “Una lagrima sulla tomba del Conte C. Leopardi” referring to the demise of the composer’s brother-in-law. It certainly is a funeral march; bizarrely, it was composed several years before its dedicatee’s death (that would freak me out, for sure). 

Another aspect of this music is that it reminds us of repertoire that was once all the rage and has now rather disappeared: in this case, Flotow’s Martha. It is with this piece that the disc ends, a “Divertimento brillante” to which Vigna-Taglianti brings both nobility and, in its latter stage, its pure fun. 

Fans of Thalberg will find much to enjoy in this disc (Unia even uses the “three-hand” trick in the Ernani piece). As so often with Tactus, there is a scholarly element to this release: Vigna-Taglianti, who also provides booklet notes as well as performing, has published on Unia an article called “Il pianista del Re: Giuseppe Antonio Unia in Studi Piemontesi.” Génot, too, adds his own liner notes (but they could really do with using paragraphs). 

This was not a release I had expected to be shortlisting for a Wants List, but there we go; it’s in there. This is beautiful music performed to the highest standard, all couched in a fine recording”. Colin Clarke