Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition [32:28]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Sonata 'Pathétique' in C minor, op.13 [20:28]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Rhapsody in B minor, op.79 no.1 [9:13]
Rhapsody in G minor, op.79 no.2 [6:46]
Stephen De Pledge (piano)
rec. Music Room, Champs Hill, Pulborough, England, 11-12 December 2008. DDD

Experienced Kiwi pianist Stephen De Pledge makes his debut solo recording for Champs Hill with a thoughtful programme drawn from the heart of the repertoire. Previously he has featured both in a chamber and solo capacity on a disc of various small-scale pieces by Messiaen (CHRCD 022).
Somewhat curiously, this new CD has taken four years to make it to the market. On the other hand, although there can be little argument about the artistic supremacy of Mussorgsky's Pictures, Beethoven's Pathétique and Brahms's Rhapsodies, it does seem rather unlikely that anyone will bounce with excitement over yet another recording of any of these works in what has long been an extremely congested marketplace. Indeed, with now hundreds of recordings available of central piano repertoire, it probably makes more commercial sense nowadays for a soloist of De Pledge's calibre to champion relatively neglected composers. Without denying either that he is a pianist of considerable poise who deserves to be heard, or that his recital is an intelligent, varied one, had De Pledge left Beethoven and Brahms for another day and recorded instead, say, a piano sonata by one of the many undervalued Russian or Polish contemporaries of Mussorgsky, this CD may well have found a larger audience.
Indeed, half De Pledge's programme is given over to Mussorgsky's Pictures which has, rather sadly, earned itself something of a reputation as a 'warhorse', at least in its orchestral form. Certainly it seems to crop up repeatedly in recordings and concert halls across Europe and beyond. Such 'ill repute' is undeserved, because the original piano version in any case is actually one of the most imaginative works of its kind of the entire 19th century, and De Pledge's account, whilst not without certain minor drawbacks - ponderous or workaday in places and an emotionally unexceptional 'Catacombae', for example - has enough insight, excitement and originality to lift it above a good many other recordings.
For reasons not altogether clear, the title Pictures atan Exhibition has become firmly entrenched in preference to the correct translation of Mussorgsky's original Russian, Pictures froman Exhibition. 'Pictures at' does not even make proper sense, strictly - Mussorgsky is not passively walking round his deceased artist friend's exhibition, noting pictures as he goes. Instead he has created his own edited, stylised version of it, selecting only a handful from the original 400-odd artworks and 'altering' their content to suit his musical ideas. These are Pictures taken from an exhibition, not contemplated at one. In his lengthy, informative and lucid booklet notes, the ever-reliable Malcolm MacDonald makes this fact pretty clear - but that does not prevent him from perpetuating the illogic.
Elsewhere, De Pledge's punchy Beethoven is likely to have wide appeal in its emotional centre-course - he happily avoids sentimentalising the famous adagio cantabile, for example - and he excels in the lyrical drama of Brahms's brilliant Rhapsodies.
Sound quality is good. Microphones are perhaps a shade closer than ideal - there is just an inkling of distortion in the very loudest passages of Pictures.
Ultimately, these are expert, attractive readings that do not, however, quite add up to essential listening, particularly given the huge, frequently illustrious competition already available on all three fronts. Those who have seen De Pledge play, supporters of the worthy not-for-profit cause that is Champs Hill Records, and collectomaniancs are the most likely market, and they will not be disappointed.
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You will not be disappointed if you have seen De Pledge play or are a collectomanianc or a supporter of Champs Hill. 

Masterwork Index: Pictures at an exhibition ~~ Pathetique sonata