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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Piano Sonata No. 14 in A minor D.784 (1823) [19:31]
Piano Sonata No. 13 in A major D.664 (1819) [21:07]
Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
Piano Sonata No. 2 in A Major op. 21 (1910-11) [26:46]
Lucas Debargue (piano)
rec. 2017, La Grange au Lac, Évian Resort, Évian-les-Bains, France
SONY 88985465632 [67:47]

Reading the MWI review of Lucas Debargue's debut CD I was intrigued and acquired it. I'm glad I did, it was a breath of fresh air as far as the interpretations were concerned, and I certainly wasn't put off by the reviewer's reservations. His second disc, again reviewed on this site, followed a year later. Although this review was more enthusiastic, sadly I've never heard it. I'm very fortunate to have the opportunity to review the pianist's third offering, where he turns his attentions to middle-period Schubert and early Szymanowski.

Debargue's unconventional rise to fame has been mulled over many times, so I’ll be brief. Initially largely self-taught, he then spent some time working in a Paris supermarket. He then returned to the piano and so impressed those who heard him, he was taken up by a Russian piano coach in Paris. Four years later he found himself in the final of the Tchaikovsky competition. Here he played with an orchestra for the first time. He took fourth place, much to the chagrin of jury members Boris Berezovsky and Peter Donohoe, who thought he should have been placed higher. Well, despite this, he secured a Sony contract and now at twenty-seven his career and reputation are going from strength to strength.

His choice of Schubert Sonatas is imaginative and refreshing. Not for him the 'big' late sonatas, instead two shorter, smaller-scaled works from the middle period, profoundly contrasting in mood. The popular A major Sonata, D. 664, notable for its geniality and song-like character and dedicated to the 'pretty' Josephine von Koller, reveals a young composer in love. This is the complete antithesis of the Piano Sonata in A minor, D. 784 of four years later. It's a work of bleakness and austerity, reflecting the dark circumstances of the composer's life at the time. He had contracted syphilis the previous year and was confined to his father's house.

I don't think I've heard a performance of the Piano Sonata in A minor, D. 784, which conveys such darkness and despair as this one. Lebargue projects the desolation and emotional power from the start with the low minor left-hand pianissimo chords at bar 9. At the end of the movement, these are transformed, alternating between staves and sounding a terrifying death knell. Throughout there are outbursts of emotion expressing terror and fear. The warmer, lyrical slow movement offers some respite, with the pianist shaping the phrases with rapt intensity. The rapid triplets of the finale speak of a chill wind, with a contrasting lyrical section occasionally breaking through.

The Piano Sonata in A major, D. 664 is blithe by comparison. Lebargue captures the charm and simplicity of this delightful work to perfection. The two outer movements are lively and ebullient, framing a wistful and introspective Andante.

Unlike the Schubert Sonatas, the Szymanowski Piano Sonata No. 2 has had too few outings in the recording studio. Written in 1910-11 it’s the composer's final word in the late Romantic idiom to be found in his piano music. Unlike the First Sonata, there are no traces of imitation, the work establishes his own voice and style. The sheer scale of its two-part structure can be described as monumental. The first contrasts drama, violence and energy with more endearing lyricism. The second is a theme and variations leading to a four-part fugue. Debargue’s impressive technique serves him well in this devilish, virtuosically-demanding work. He’s fully conversant with the architectural structure of the work, and delivers a reading of commanding authority and intelligent musicianship. He never lapses into overblown exaggeration, which could be a temptation. The recording captures all the subtleties and nuances of the score, and reveals plenty of detail, which could otherwise be problematic due to the density of the writing.

As piano recordings go, this is one of those that goes straight to the top for me. It's well-recorded, and I love the piano sound; the notes don't state the make of instrument, but it’s superbly voiced and has a rich tone. Unfortunately my review missed the deadline for a Recording of the Year, for which it unquestionably qualifies. Maybe I'll include it next year. What is certain is that I’ll be playing it often, and it will never stray too far from reach.

Stephen Greenbank




 

 




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