Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Alexander Uninsky - The Chopin Studies

And who, you might ask, was Uninsky? Born in Kiev, he trained in the conservatory that also turned out greats like Horowitz and Brailowsky. He subsequently moved to Paris in 1923, where he studied with Lazare Lévy. He was awarded the conservatory's first prize for piano. In 1932 he won the second International Frédéric Chopin Piano Competition. In fact, Uninsky tied for first place with the blind Hungarian pianist Imre Ungar, and the judges decided to award victory on the basis of the toss of a coin. Ungar lost.

You will find all this information in Wikipedia, by the way. I should know. I put it there. 

Listening to his playing, you might wonder what was so special about it. You have to remember that his formative years in Paris in the twenties immersed him in the anti-romanticism of the age. People wanted Chopin without the histrionics and posturing of the Great Virtuosi. It was an era of unsentimental, uptempo readings and clarity of interpretation. But you can also hear a rich, warm tone that is the stamp of the Kiev school of the period. The almost self-effacing quality of the pianists of the period (Magaloff was another such) meant that they quickly became old-fashioned sounding in the post-war era, when the rise of the LP contributed greatly to the return of the cult of the celebrity. 

A recent flurry of interest over the internet led me to revisit his Chopin studies, in a version lovingly restored by that old scofflaw, Dr Duffy. And listening it it again, I am struck by the unobtrusive but constant ebb and flow of the playing. Behind the clarity and apparent restraint is a flexibility that often manifests itself in ways that would lose you marks in a competition today. Listen, for example, to the central section of Op 10 No 3 – there is no doubt about it: the man is not playing equal notes. He is leaning slightly on the strong beat and shaving the weak one slightly. Or number 7, that bubbles along with a breathtaking lightness – more like our image of Mendelssohn than Chopin. 

And no, this doesn't mean that the more stark studies suffer. I find his reading of the last Op 25 study very reminiscent of Cortot's. There is tragedy there, but immense strength too. Both pianists realise that by simply playing the music, the story will unfold with its own logic. 

So please enjoy an honest pianist!

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1 comment:

  1. Thanks a million for that rare LP. Uninsky is a real musician.