Johann Sebastian BACH (1685–1750)
Toccata in C minor BWV 911 [10:32]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770–1827)
Piano Sonata No. 7 in D major, op. 10/3 [24:52]
Nikolai MEDTNER (1880–1951)
Piano Sonata in F minor op. 5 [35:58]
Lucas Debargue (piano)
rec. Funkhaus Nalepastrasse, Sendesaal 1, Berlin, 1-5 February 2016
SONY 88985 341762 [70:57]
Lucas Debargue was the great sensation at the 2015 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. He came fourth but in the eyes of the audience – and the music critics – he was the real winner and the only competitor people talked about. His background story is as fascinating as his success.
He was self-taught until well into his teens and his main interest was jazz. At age 17 he felt that music wasn’t his cup of tea and went to work in a supermarket in Paris. Some years later he was invited to play in a local festival, took up his playing again and performed so brilliantly that he was sent to a Russian teacher in Paris. Four years later, at 24, he was a finalist in the Tchaikovsky competition and for the first time in his life played with an orchestra.
The critics waxed lyrical: “Debargue belongs in the Champions League of keyboard virtuosos”; “Power, subtlety, control, imagination, taste: he’s got it all”; "[He] is fantastically gifted: original, not tamed by any academicism, eccentric to the point of being mannered, but also thrilling as a result of his very personal tone”. These are strong words about a ‘beginner’.
I had the good fortune to hear him in a concert at the beginning of autumn 2016 and felt at once that all those superlatives quoted above were true. He played a Mozart concerto, and that is not normally the repertoire one associates with platform antics. It wasn’t in this case either but his deep concentration from the very moment he entered the platform and how he lived the music with every fibre was almost hypnotizing. His care over nuances and over dynamics was enthralling. It was the C minor, since the beginning of time my favourite concerto in all categories, and it had never before touched me so deeply. As an encore he played a Scarlatti sonata, so soft, so contemplative, with a touch that made the Steinway sound like a virginal – crystal clear and transparent but with a rounded warmth of tone that went straight to the heart.
When I pressed the start button for my first listening session together with the present disc, I had the same feeling as three months earlier. The Bach toccata leaped out of the speakers with incomparable clarity and a magical touch. His dynamic shadings are so well-judged and his precision is pinpoint without being mechanical. A superb opening to this recital.
Beethoven’s piano sonatas op. 10 have tended to be overshadowed by the next sonata in the cycle, Pathétique, and that’s a pity since they are great compositions in their own right. The D major is the longest and the only one that has four movements. It is typical of Debargue’s individuality that he picks works a little on the outskirts of the standard repertoire. I also find that his prime aim is not to dazzle through whirlwind tempos. Rather he is prone to be on the slow side. The opening presto of the sonata is a great deal slower than Wilhelm Kempff’s and may be thought lethargic, were it not for his exquisite dynamic shadings. In the second movement he adopts a daringly slow tempo but manages to hold it together by dint of his phrasing. The little minuet is elegant and in the concluding rondo it is again the subtle dynamic control that impresses.
Nikolai Medtner has had a somewhat hidden away position in the musical life of the first half of the 20th century. His fourteen piano sonatas are important milestones in his career and cover more than thirty years. The sonata Debargue plays here is the first of them. It’s a grand work which takes almost 36 minutes. It requires considerable finger-work and power as well. The first movement is the longest and is a kind of ‘sonata within the sonata’. The marching intermezzo is rather impressionistic, while the largo opens mildly and with a questioning tone. Then it grows and becomes broad and orchestral. It is a play with light and darkness. The finale is the most extrovert movement but there are contemplative moments as well. Medtner, whom I have heard fairly little of, has a distinct voice of his own, a little out of phase with the time he lived in. His is a grateful voice for pianists and Debargue has the measure of it.
This is not Debargue's debut disc. He made a live recording shortly after the Tchaikovsky competition, including some of the works he played there. My colleague Brian Reinhart reviewed it and was less enthusiastic than I am here. He noted his slow tempos and found that “he seems to settle into a medium-loud groove” but wondered “if he’d be more willing to play softly, and explore gradations of softness, in a studio recording”. As I have tried to make clear it is his care over dynamics and phrasing that is his strongest suit.
On this hearing I found Lucas Debargue to be a strong-willed and individual musician with remarkable potential to become one of the really great pianists.