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Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition / Stephen De Pledge

Mussorgsky / Beethoven / Brahms / De Pledge
Release Date: 04/24/2012 
Label:  Champs Hill Records   Catalog #: 30   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Modest MussorgskyJohannes BrahmsLudwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Stephen de Pledge
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 9 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

MUSSORGSKY Pictures at an Exhibition. BEETHOVEN Piano Sonata No. 8, “Pathétique.” BRAHMS 2 Rhapsodies Stephen De Pledge (pn) CHAMPS HILL CHRCD030 (68:55)

The latest in a series of 431—collect them all! That’s the way I look at each new recording of Pictures, given the possibilities that it Read more affords for interpretive nuance. I really do want them all. The latest excursion into Mussorgsky’s realm comes from New Zealand pianist Stephen De Pledge, whose career was launched when he won the gold medal at Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. Since then, he has made numerous recordings, including solo works of Bliss, Pärt, and Messiaen. He is, in short, a very active concert artist, and is apparently widely respected in many quarters, including—at least some of the time—this one.

For starters, I find these readings of the Beethoven and Brahms very persuasive. Inner lines are well brought out, and his shaping of these works is well conceived. The dramatic outbursts typical of Beethoven’s artistic temperament seem neither over- nor underdone, and the tempo—rather brisk—of the exposition of the “Pathétique” is just right in relationship to the preceding grave introduction. In the second movement, the parallel minor section, where the accompanimental figuration breaks into 16th-note triplets, is nicely set off from the A sections of the movement, and the staccato eighth notes in the left hand of the final movement are extremely well articulated and precise. Likewise, the inherent drama in Brahms’s two rhapsodies is found in good measure here.

In Pictures, because of my greater intimacy with the work, my ideas about just how it should be played are more firmly rooted. My review of De Pledge’s rendition is definitely a mixed bag, but I should hasten to mention that many listeners would not object to the things that bother me. Before I get to those, I feel it appropriate to list the strengths of De Pledge’s reading. Working a bit backwards, his close of this masterpiece (from measure 114 of “Great Gate” onward) constitutes one of the more exciting versions I’ve encountered. He adds fifths in the middle of the left-hand octaves in mm. 168 and 169 to produce more power. I don’t think Mussorgsky would have minded. The outer sections of “Baba-Yaga” are also very powerful and impressive. The critical accentuation so necessary to bring this movement off is splendidly executed, as are the crisp chords in the right hand, beginning in measure 137.

In the opening promenade, De Pledge’s phrasing is exemplary. This is something that every pianist who comes to this work has to work out, given the uneven meter, and the fact that phrasing often has to occur from the middle of one measure to the middle of the next, or sometimes, more than once within a single measure. In measure 29 of “Gnomus,” De Pledge plays the recurrence of the six-note motif pianissimo. Most pianists assume that Mussorgsky intends for this to be fortissimo, although the autograph does not specify that dynamic. The softer dynamic makes for a nice surprise. In Byd?o, the effect of straining oxen seems perfectly captured. (I should mention in one of my reviews, and this one is as good as any, that the oxen depicted in this movement were by Mussorgsky’s own testimony a metaphor for the Polish people, who were oppressed by various peoples throughout their long history. Victor Hartmann’s wife was Polish, possibly the reason that this idea came to Mussorgsky’s mind.)

Another strength of De Pledge’s reading is his “Catacombs,” in which, through skillful pedaling, he exudes a quintessentially gloomy atmosphere. So there is much to admire in this performance, but there are also things that are by no means so felicitous, and offset the merits I’ve mentioned.

Perhaps most importantly, there are a number of movements that are simply too carefully, too meticulously, and too matter-of-factly rendered. In many pianists’ hands, only “Limoges” suffers this fate, but in De Pledge’s version, the disease has also metastasized to the “Ballet of Unhatched Chicks,” “Tuilleries,” “Samuel Goldenberg,” and the middle section of “Baba-Yaga,” which doesn’t come off as spooky in the least. Doing this to Samuel Goldenberg has robbed him of every ounce of the pomposity attending his dignified personage. Also in this movement, De Pledge misreads (undoubtedly, because the same error occurs in two successive measures) the left-hand chords on beat 2 in each of measures 13 and 14, where he repeats the B? found on the first chord of those measures instead of changing the note to Mussorgsky’s A?. Needless to say, this sounds very strange to anyone who knows the piece, and I’m pretty sure that this error doesn’t exist in any printed edition of the piece (and certainly not in any of the 10 editions I own).

I’m also not much taken with De Pledge’s approach to the pedal-point G?s that underpin the entire movement. In measures 59 and 60, especially, he pounds them out as if they’re an earthshaking discovery, when these two measures should magically suspend the exquisite dissonance that Mussorgsky has created, and which is wonderfully and brilliantly resolved in the following measure. In other places, they often sound boringly routine. Additionally, the runs that begin in measure 187 of “Baba-Yaga,” and which should dramatically prepare the listener for the grandeur of the “Great Gate,” sound in De Pledge’s hands like a Hanon exercise, so matter-of-factly does he execute them.

For these reasons, I cannot recommend the CD for those who simply want to acquire a recording to discover what all the excitement is about regarding Pictures at an Exhibition. I doubt that De Pledge’s readings would assume pride of place as most pianophiles’ first choice for either the Brahms and Beethoven works either, given the stiff recorded competition. Advanced collectors of piano recordings, though, might well want to acquire this CD to hear fine piano playing in many places, and to see what rewards this artist might have to offer them. I suspect that I won’t have to tell you if you’re one of those.

FANFARE: David DeBoor Canfield
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Works on This Recording

Pictures at an Exhibition for Piano by Modest Mussorgsky
Performer:  Stephen de Pledge (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1874; Russia 
Venue:  Music Room, Champs Hill, Sussex 
Length: 30 Minutes 22 Secs. 
Rhapsodies (2) for Piano, Op. 79 by Johannes Brahms
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1879; Austria 
Venue:  Music Room, Champs Hill, Sussex 
Length: 15 Minutes 58 Secs. 
Sonata for Piano no 8 in C minor, Op. 13 "Pathétique" by Ludwig van Beethoven
Period: Classical 
Written: 1797-1798; Vienna, Austria 
Venue:  Music Room, Champs Hill, Sussex 
Length: 19 Minutes 45 Secs. 

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