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I have watched pianist Lucas Debargue with interest since he burst onto the international music scene as the “runner up” in the 2015 Tchaikovsky Competition. Described as a “maverick” and a “late starter” because he didn’t have a traditional musical training in conservatoire and doesn’t wear the customary concert attire, he interests me because he has a very personal artistic vision and creative freedom – almost certainly the result of not following the traditional well-trod path of the young concert pianist. (The cover photo on his latest disc seems to reflect this – the artist treading a lonely, snowy path.)

Since then, he’s released two impressive recordings in quick succession. Now this much-anticipated third disc presents a brace of familiar Schubert sonatas – the so-called “little” sonatas in A minor (D784) and A Major (D664) – with a rarely-performed piece, Karol Szymanowski’s second piano sonata, also in A Major. Debargue brings a dark emotional intensity, poignancy and rugged earnestness, when called for, to the first Schubert sonata and also the Szymanowski, thus creating some interesting and satisfying links between two works which on first sight may not appear connected. He fully appreciates the bleak  melancholy inherent in the D784 with its mysterious spare opening motif and the portentous trills and rumbling tremolandos, offset by passages of tender wistfulness (Schubert can feel even more tragic when writing in a major key). The Andante is elegantly paced, but not without its passions, while the finale is frenetic and anxious, its scurrying triplets tempered by sections of bittersweet lyricism.

Ostensibly more “cheerful”, the little A Major has its share of heartrending moments, not least in the second movement to which Debargue brings a desolate intimacy, without ever losing sight of the natural poetry of this music. The finale is sprightly with melodic clarity aplenty and much rhythmic verve.

Any pianist who records Schubert must be very sure of his or her ground, and in these sonatas Debargue displays a musical maturity and thoughtful insight to give a performance which is both convincing and personal.

There’s a brooding melancholy and blistering restlessness in the opening movement of the Syzmanowski sonata which recalls the dark clouds of Schubert’s D784, while the middle movement has a quirky Schubertian tread to it, initially dance-like then more sombre and funereal, and its unusual harmonic language, fluctuating tonalities, and expansiveness also recall Schubert’s writing. It’s a rewarding work, with its full-blooded passionate late-romantic textures (which have gone by the time Szymanowski wrote his third piano sonata), and Debargue is alert to its shifting palette and dark intensity, as well as its monumental structure and narrative thrust.

There’s nothing youthful or unformed about Debargue’s playing in all three works on this disc. There’s a genuine, uncontrived naturalness in his playing, especially in his use of tempo rubato, and his overall approach is mature and thoughtful, suggesting an artist who has not only fully immersed himself in this repertoire but also informed his playing via a wider cultural landscape and interests.

Recommended


Review of Lucas Debargue’s debut disc

album_coverLucas Debargue: Scarlatti, Chopin, Liszt Ravel (Sony)

Escape all the noise and fall out of Brexit and the Conservative Party leadership wrangling with this exquisite debut disc by Lucas Debargue, the young French pianist who came fourth in the prestigious Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in 2015.

Weightless elegant Scarlatti opens this album which was recorded live at the Salle Cortot in Paris, Debargue’s first concert in his hometown after the competition. His sense of pacing, evident in the Scarlatti sonatas, really comes to the fore in his reading of Chopin’s Fourth Ballade, where he balances delicacy and poetry with drama to create a performance which is both intimate and expansive. The real impact comes when he holds the music in suspense: it feels natural and unpretentious. His performance of Gaspard de la Nuit, the work for which he received much enthusiastic acclaim during the competition, is equally impressive. His clarity of touch and tone combined with that wondrous pacing brings a silky sensuality to ‘Ondine”s watery arabesques while ‘Scarbo’ is less grotesque, more puckish and playful, though no less dark for it. In between these movements, ‘Le Gibet’ is seven minutes of restrained desolation. His Liszt is a proper waltz instead of the headlong frenzy some pianists give to this work. The Grieg is like an encore, a calming salve after Liszt’s twirling rhyhms. The Schubert is as intimate as you like, as if Debargue is playing just for you – and playful too, reminding us that Schubert was a composer of dances and Ländler. And in a neat piece of programming the album closes with Debargue’s variation on the Scarlatti Sonata in A which opens the album.

At the Tchaikovsky Competition, the Moscow Music Critics Association awarded him their prize for “the pianist whose incredible gift, artistic vision and creative freedom have impressed the critics as well as the audience”, and his debut disc demonstrates these attributes in spades.

Highly recommended.

Lucas Debargue’s performances at the Tchaikovsky Competition are still available to view on the Medici TV site

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Much has been written about the young French pianist Lucas Debargue, a finalist in the 2015 edition of the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition. The concept of him being “self-taught” (until relatively recently) has been debated across a number of articles, together with his rather unusual technique (“Scales played with only the thumb and index finger and his pinkie sticking up as daintily as Hyacinth Bucket’s” – The Spectator, 18/7/15) and glorious sound. He’s not out of the traditional mold of the international competition winner (commences piano studies at a young age, undertakes rigorous study with a master teacher and progresses to the “Three C’s” of Conservatoire, Competition and Concerto) – and he didn’t even wear a tie during the final! In an honest and touching interview with Ismene Brown of The Arts Desk, Debargue comes across as a sensitive and intellectual young man for whom music is profoundly important, not just in terms of beautiful sound, but also as a “a place to live in. It’s about real emotions, real sensations”.

Let’s just clear up a few inaccuracies. In ‘The Spectator’ article quoted above, he is described as “the man who came last”. He didn’t come last. He achieved what most can only dream of: he reached the final of the most prestigious piano competition in the world. That he did this following only four years professional study with a Russian master teacher (Rena Shereshevskaya) is remarkable. (And by the way, it doesn’t really matter that his scale fingering is unusual: there is no “one size fits all” fingering scheme, because hands and fingers come in different sizes.) Now everyone is asking what next for this extraordinary young man?

It is at this point that I start to worry for a talented and obviously sensitive young man like Lucas Debargue. He is not the first, and certainly won’t be the last, young artist to be thrust into the limelight before he is ready. Unlike the other competition finalists, he has not undergone the long and rigorous traditional professional training which would prepare him for the concert platform: he still needs to hone his stagecraft and, more importantly, learn how to deal with the journalists, agents, promoters, and fans who besieged him as the competition progressed – and continue to. The classical music industry is not a particularly pleasant place, and the world of international pianism is highly competitive, almost ruthlessly so. At the big competitions, representatives from the big artist agencies are waiting to scoop up the winners and runners up, offering tempting contracts, a slew of international engagements, recording deals and more (look how much Martin James Bartlett, winner of the BBC Young Musician of the Year 2014, has done since his win, including several performances at the Proms, and he’s only just 19; he has, however, undergone a professional training in specialist music school and conservatoire). It’s true that success in an international competition can make an artist – but it can break one too. From the moment one chooses the life of the international concert pianist, one lives in the public eye: every performance and recording is held up for scrutiny, and one is under almost continual pressure to meet the expectations of agents, promoters, fickle audiences, critics and fans. The life of the concert pianist is tough, restrictive and lonely. In addition to the many hours of solitary practise, there is the traveling, nights spent in faceless hotels, fine historic cities viewed through a fog of fatigue, never having the option to be less than perfect, even if one is ill or tired, knowing that one is judged on one’s last performance (here I recall the unpleasant hoopla surrounding Ivo Pogorelich’s London concert in February). The pressure can be unbearable if one is not equipped to handle it. (Read Charles Beauclerk’s excellent and sympathetic biography of John Ogdon for some brutal insights into the life of the international concert pianist. For Ogdon, the piano was his saviour and his tormentor, and there is no question that the pressure of so much traveling to perform around the world contributed to his breakdown.)

Add to this that peculiarly British fascination with the maverick, the eccentric, the tortured genius with the unconventional “backstory”. We risk endangering Debargue further by holding him up as curiosity, instead of allowing him to develop and mature in his own time. There is something very authentic about his playing, his particular soundworld and his special and personal connection to the music which has clearly touched people.

Lucas Debargue plays Ravel – ‘Gaspard de la Nuit’

In his interview with Ismene Brown, Debargue talks of having few friends and little support from his family. His teacher was his mentor and supporter, encouraging him to take a tilt at the Tchaikovsky Competition and saying when he got through the first round “It doesn’t matter when you pass or not, it’s really good that you are here to play and I am grateful and proud of you.” He has yet to develop the necessarily resilience, thick skin and artistic temperament to survive the “wild west” of the international concert circuit, and I only hope that whoever he chooses to manage him, should he decide to go down that route, is sympathetic and puts his well-being before all else. Otherwise, I dread to think what might happen….

So please let’s allow him – and others like him – to develop at his own pace to emerge onto the international circuit, should he choose that path, when he is truly ready. To conclude this article, I think it is worth quoting a comment on Peter Donohoe’s piece for Slipped Disc about the competition (Peter was a juror this year):

Aside from all of this, what happens to each of these young artists remains to be seen. How will they carry on with their studies as musicians? Which repertoire will they cultivate? Will they develop chamber music careers, teaching, new works, recordings? This is what is most important as they begin to soul search and decipher how and what they will contribute to the world of music outside of the usual parameters. (Jeffrey Biegel)
Read Peter Donohoe’s thoughtful and intelligent article here

View clips of Lucas Debargue’s performances in the International Tchaikovsky Competition

A “self-taught” pianist (Lucas Debargue) who made it through to the final of this year’s prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition, has been exercising journalists, commentators and bloggers in the immediate aftermath of the competition. Debargue is unusual in the highly competitive and often cut-throat world of international pianism as he came relatively late to his craft: he started to play aged 11, gave up at 17 and worked in a Paris supermarket before he started again and played so brilliantly that he was put in touch with a hot-shot Russian teacher. He was praised by two of the judges on the panel, pianists Dmitri Bashkirov and Boris Berezovsky, was awarded the Moscow music critics’ prize, and was invited by Valery Gergiev, no less, to play in the winners’ gala recital in the presence of Vladimir Putin. In addition to much positing and pondering about the notion of a “self taught” pianist making it to the final of such a major competition (one which has launched the careers of many “greats” of the piano world today, including Peter Donohoe, one of this year’s judges, John Lill, Barry Douglas and Daniil Trifonov, to name but a few), there has also discussion about what constitutes a “proper” musical training. These days, most of us understand “musical training” as study at conservatoire, music college or a specialist music school. In the rarefied hot-house atmosphere of such institutions the talents of tomorrow are carefully nurtured, ready to launch into a professional career when they graduate, and the “three C’s” – Conservatoire, Concerto, Competition – are regarded by many as the holy grail of a musical training leading to assured success and a slew of international bookings. The notion of someone who is “self-taught” reaching these dizzying heights, specifically the final of the Tchaikovsky Competition, seems alien, and yet perhaps the best students are those who realise that studying extends beyond the confines of conservatoire, music college or private lessons with a teacher or mentor.

In fact, it is inaccurate to state that Debargue is “self-taught” (but of course the mainstream media have latched onto this and sensationalised it). In reality, he studied at the Paris Conservatoire (CNSMDP) from the age of 20, and is currently taking instruction at the Ecole Normale de Musique Alfred Cortot in Paris under Prof. Rena Shereshevskaya. In 2014 he won the 9th International Adilia Alieva Piano Competition in Gaillard (France). He is pursuing a “proper” musical training, albeit somewhat later than some of his contemporaries. As Jessica Duchen says in her intelligent article on this subject, it is “dangerous to overplay the “self-taught” card because, sad to say, a large part of the British public thinks music happens by magic. That it’s something for “fun”. That it doesn’t take hard work to be good at it…………They seem to believe, too, that if you by-pass all the traditional channels but follow your dream in any case, you’ll be bound to come out as some kind of genius. That traditional studies are somehow bad and the inspiration of the moment is good, indeed is everything.”

To describe Debargue as “self-taught” devalues the amount of effort and hard work he has put in to get to where he is now. As a teacher myself, my aim is to encourage my students to become “self-teachers” – by which I mean to encourage them, through my guidance and support, to become independent learners, to explore, be curious, questioning, ambitious…… As one of my students said recently “I want to be able to open a book of music and play anything I want to”. My role, as teacher, is to equip him and my other students with the tools to do that. And as a mature student myself, I hope I can demonstrate to my students (and others) that one’s studies do not end when one has completed graded exams, for example, or left university; that learning is an ongoing process and one which can – and should – be undertaken independently.

Self-taught” is not the panacea you think – Jessica Duchen’s article

The self-taught French pianist who wowed the Tchaikovsky competition – article in The Spectator