Lucas Debargue. Photo by Xiomara BenderLucas Debargue has already had a storied career. When he was 24, he finished fourth in the 2015 Tchaikovsky Piano Competition but, more importantly, the Moscow Music Critics Association bestowed their top honours on him as “the pianist whose performance at the Competition has become an event of genuine musical significance, and whose incredible gift, artistic vision and creative freedom have impressed the critics as well as the audience.”

Immediately SONY signed him to a recording contract. Now he’s just released his fourth CD for the company – 52 sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti on four CDs – and he will play ten of them on January 16, 2020 in his fourth appearance in Toronto in less than four years. This, after sharing a Koerner Hall program with Lukas Geniušas (runner-up in that same 2015 competition) on April 30, 2016, a TSO debut in Liszt’s Piano Concerto No.2 in April 2017, and a memorable chamber music concert with Janine Jansen, Torlief Thedeen and Martin Fröst, highlighted by Messiaen’s ineffable Quartet for the End of Time in December 2017. He will make his third Koerner Hall appearance – and Koerner Hall solo debut – in an impressive program headed by those ten Scarlatti sonatas. I caught up with him mid-November, via an email conversation, in Lausanne, Switzerland where he was on tour.

His playing has a spontaneity, an improvisatory quality that seems to come from getting completely inside the music. “Has this been a characteristic of your approach from the beginning of your relationship with the piano?” I asked.

“I always felt that interpretation, improvisation and composition are the three faces of a healthy musical practice,” he replied. “Spending eight hours in front of a piano with no interest in the scores themselves, nor in the musical culture and literature, cinema, paintings … that always seemed to me like a betrayal of the Arts. I never think about my relationship with the instrument. I think about music, and how much more I want to learn about it, to give more to the people who are in need of Beauty.”

When Debargue was ten in 2000, he writes in the booklet notes to his Scarlatti CD, and just beginning to play the piano, he was “devouring one of the early issues of the magazine Pianiste” when he discovered the shortest of Scarlatti’s 555 sonatas, K431 in G Major. As he put it, from the beginning there was always something totally obvious in his relationship with this music.

“I told myself, maybe not now, but I will devote a big part of my life to this music” he said. “Actually, I couldn’t imagine how right I was. It’s a visceral reaction, rather than something clicking in my brain.”

“What was it about Scarlatti’s sonatas that attracted you?” I asked.

“Everything: concision, precision, savagery, nobility, discomfort, freedom, knowledge, sweetness… These words are more relevant to this music than to any other.”

He chose the repertoire for the SONY Scarlatti recording by reading the 11-volume Heugel Edition, the full collection of sonatas (approximately 37 hours of music), several times. “I let my taste lead me in this.” He selected the ten sonatas for the Toronto recital the way he always builds a recital program. “It should create the impression of a little drama, or at least a story,” he said. “Starting gently and going deeper and deeper.” He chose the tempos and keys to create contrast. And of course, he added, “These ten are among my favourites.”

As for the overall program selection? “I choose pieces that go well together for me … sensitive logic you could call it.”

He will follow the Scarlatti group with Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, a piece he played in the second round of the Tchaikovsky Competition and on his first SONY recording, as well as in his first appearance in Toronto in 2016. I asked what it is that he finds so compelling about Gaspard.

“It’s one of the few big masterpieces written on modern piano,” he said. “All the techniques are used there, to create what I call a pianistic trance, and an atmosphere that is at the same time magical and scary … It’s a jewel of music writing. Every single harmony is well thought-out and all construction is insanely precise. It’s an intellectual and sensual joy to perform this, always a memorable experience for me …”. Has his approach to it changed over the years? “Interpretation can never be fixed, otherwise it’s dead music,” he replied.

As for Medtner’s Sonata in G Minor Op.22 which will follow the intermission in his Toronto recital: “It’s a very deep and clever work, impressively compact, considering the density of the musical material” he said. “The shape is the same as that of the Liszt B-minor sonata. The subject matter is also quite Faustian, but with a big Russian touch with the lyrical theme that has a folkish character … I feel saddened by the lack of recognition for Medtner’s music. He was a genius of piano writing, very respected by his close friend Rachmaninoff. They don’t have so much in common: the music of Medtner really has its own characteristics. It’s important for me to use the opportunities I have to perform, to share this wonderful music with the audience …”

Debargue has been playing Liszt’s After a Reading of Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata – the piece that concludes his program – for a long time. “One could wake me up in the middle of the night, I would perform it with joy! It makes the performer face challenges that are typical of Liszt’s music: it could easily become a technical demonstration. But the pianist should overcome this temptation and be like a conductor on the keyboard, creating the orchestral effects that Liszt desired and imagined so well through his genius for piano writing.”

If Debargue’s backstory weren’t true, few would believe it as fiction. He heard the slow movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.21 K467 when he was ten, fell under its spell and into the world of music. He played a friend’s upright piano by ear before beginning lessons at 11 with his first teacher, Madame Meunier, in the northern French town of Compiègne. He credits her with helping him to find his way as an artist, but when he moved to Paris to study literature at Diderot University – yes, he learned English by reading Joyce’s Ulysses – he stopped playing piano (“I had no great guide, no one to share great music with,” he told the BBC), instead turning to the bass guitar as a musical outlet. After being away from the piano for years, he accepted an invitation to a competition in his home province. He won, and began an intense pupil-teacher relationship with Rena Sherevskaya in Paris at 21. Three years later, he made history.

Now, having just turned 29, his uniqueness as a performer is becoming more evident with each passing year. “What do you enjoy about your life as a concert pianist?” I asked. “Stage time, of course,” was the simple four-word reply. And also, when he’s at home, he added, working on his programs in order to prepare his next shows.

Sergei RachmaninoffBack in 2016 I asked him about pianists he admired. “Horowitz, Sofronitsky and Gould for their boldness and freedom,” he replied, then added that no pianist had reached the dimension of Rachmaninoff’s own playing, and that Sokolov and Pletnev are his favourite living pianists. And finally: “How can one forget Art Tatum, Monk, Powell and Erroll Garner?”

Bud PowellSo has his relationship with any of these pianists changed since then, I asked?

“I could repeat exactly what I told you in 2016; this has not changed at all!”

Show One Productions presents Lucas Debargue in his Toronto solo debut in Koerner Hall, January 16, 2020 at 8pm.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

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