Lucas Debargue


Lucas Debargue

The photo that is most often used to publicize  Lucas Debargue’s burgeoning career is somewhat enigmatic. Is he bored or in despair? A tragic Dostoevskian anti-hero numbed by guilt or a left-bank intellectual contemplating the banality of his existence? Is he perhaps auditioning for the role of a young Shostakovich dreading the Gulag? He certainly doesn’t give the impression of reveling in the acclaim that has accompanied him since he was a major prize-winner in the Tchaikovsky Competition in 2015 at the age of 24, just four years after he decided to commit himself to a musical career. I had seen videos of him in Moscow that year playing with a ferocious concentration, so I rather expected him to be brooding and intense at the reception following his recital at Chicago’s Symphony Center on Sunday. In fact, he was relaxed and engaging, obviously a very thoughtful and serious artist, but amiable company nonetheless.

When he first appeared to play the first of two Schubert sonatas, he fidgeted with the piano stool and then stared at the keyboard for what seemed like a minute or more. Apparently, he feels the need to empty his mind of other distractions before playing, but he might also have been deciding what to play because he swapped the published program, playing the more genial A-major Sonata, D664, before the austere A-minor Sonata, D784. This order seems to make much more sense. He played the first sonata with a flowing elegance and unaffected simplicity, brightening his tone for the sprightly finale. At the reception, someone complained that the A-minor sonata was insufficiently “tragic”, but I think he played the stark octaves at the beginning of the work with an appropriately grave dignity. Although I do believe the music is a response to the diagnosis of his ultimately fatal illness, Schubert is not a self-indulgent romantic, bewailing his fate. Instead, I think he is someone quietly coming to terms with a new reality, occasionally erupting in anger, but struggling to keep his composure. Perhaps it’s because I’m English, but I find his music to be so moving because of its Elgarian restraint. And Debargue played the tender second subject with achingly beautiful harmonic coloring, perfectly judged. On the other hand, the finale was a whirlwind – I doubt Schubert could conceive of it being played that fast, especially since there is no rallentando at the end when the triplet runs are played as double octaves.

The second half consisted of a single work, Szymanowski’s Second Piano Sonata. This is not a work I have heard before, and I was a little disappointed to read in the program notes that it was written in 1910 before the composer’s journeys to the Mediterranean made him infatuated with the orient. I was looking forward to the shimmering exoticism of his later style, but the sonata is starkly expressionist, conveying Viennese angst rather than Persian perfume. Apparently, Szymanowski was worried that nobody would be able to play it, although a young Artur Rubinstein, then an avid exponent of modern music, took it in his stride. It is frighteningly complex music, with a relentlessly virtuosic first movement that seems to be perpetually climbing but never quite reaching the summit. It is tonal music but I couldn’t help thinking of the second Viennese school, since it conveyed a vehemence that reminded me of some of Schoenberg’s orchestral music at the time. The mood changes at the start of the second movement with a disarmingly jaunty theme preceding a set of quieter variations. The respite is only temporary though because the movement finishes with an angular fugue that builds inexorably to a densely chorded climax. Somehow, Debargue was always able to propel the music forward with vigor and clarity, never allowing the sheer density of notes to clog the sense of flow. It would have been impressive just as a feat of memory, but to be in such command of the elaborate musical architecture was truly remarkable. The only sign of effort was that he played the second half without a jacket.

The recital amply justified the critical reputation that preceded him. In spite of the publicity photo, he seems to be enjoying his decision to abandon science after his graduation and devote himself to the piano. His encore was a free-wheeling improvisation, demonstrating his love of jazz, which he thinks represents the greatest musical achievement of the 20th century. So a difficult man to button-hole. When asked what was the most difficult music he knew, he said the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas. Rachmaninov and Liszt sound impressive, but their music lie naturally under the hands (well, hands as large as Debargue’s, anyway), whereas Beethoven’s never do. His answers were provocative and perhaps a little too clever – maybe the response of a left-bank intellectual who doesn’t want to be banal.


Kirill Gerstein


Kirill Gerstein

As a lover of classical music, it is in my interest that more people attend live concerts, so that places like Symphony Center can afford to invite pianists like Kirill Gerstein to Chicago. That requires me to suppress my supercilious tendency to tut-tut under my breath when neophytes clap between movements, as many did when Pollini performed a couple of weeks ago to a packed auditorium. The irony, of course, is that neophytes have historical authenticity on  their side. Concertgoers regularly clapped between movements in Beethoven’s day, sometimes demanding encores before a piece was finished. This afternoon, Gerstein had a more select (i.e., smaller) audience, who never once violated modern protocols, which meant that an incongruous silence followed each of Liszt’s Transcendental Studies, even though they were all played with a dazzling bravura. To compensate for this collective, and increasingly bizarre, restraint, I had to give him an immediate standing ovation and even nearly shouted ‘bravo.’

Playing all of the Transcendental Studies in one go is a monumental achievement that few have attempted. This is the first live performance I have heard in nearly forty years. I saw Lazar Berman play them all in London’s Festival Hall, while keeping half an eye on Alfred Brendel in the opposite box following the score. I could see him nod approvingly during the final Chasse-neige. A lion amongst pianists, and the latest legend to emerge from the Soviet Union, Berman still needed a breather half-way through, abruptly leaving the stage for several minutes. Astonishingly, Gerstein barely seemed to break a sweat, even when galloping across the Steppes at break-neck speed in Mazeppa, somehow concealing the third arm that must surely have been playing the central thirds. The congested textures of Wilde Jagd were conveyed with rhythmic élan and the mischievous  double notes of  Feux Follets with apparently effortless facility. I had to remind myself how breathtaking his achievement was by looking at the score when I returned home.

Daniil Trifonov has been making waves with recent performances of the studies, and my recollection was that his recording was more probing than Gerstein’s, also released last year. For example, Gerstein seems too impatient to portray the contemplative vision of Paysage; he plays it a whole minute faster than Trifonov. However, a quick comparison of Gerstein’s recordings with today’s performance suggests either that his interpretation has evolved or that the recording studio made him a little more cautious. This afternoon, there seemed to be a more confident swagger in the faster passages and a greater lyrical freedom in the gentler music, especially Ricordanza (although Paysage was still too fast). Harmonies du Soir ended with a truly majestic climax, while the final Chasse-neige brought the concert to a powerful, if desolate, close.

The first half of the concert had contained a surprisingly robust, characterfully shaped, performance of Bach’s two-part Clavier-Übung, and an edgy performance of Brahms’ Second Piano Sonata, perhaps the least Brahmsian piece he wrote. This was a much wilder interpretation than Emmanuel Ax’s fluent but domesticated performance a couple of years ago, with a final movement that verged on the burlesque, making the stories that Brahms earned money as a teenager playing the piano in dance halls and brothels seem eminently plausible. As we know, he then grew a beard and became respectable. Gerstein has also grown a beard, making him seem a little less mischievous than the last time I saw him. Now, dressed in black suit and shirt, there is a hint of the Mephistophelean about him, perhaps appropriate for the supernatural demands of the Liszt that dominated this concert.




Daniil Trifonov


Daniil Trifonov

One of the regulars at Chicago’s piano recitals walked out abruptly at the end of the first half of Daniil Trifonov’s performance this afternoon and didn’t return for the second half. I couldn’t help but wonder if he was reacting to one of the most dreadful performances of Schumann I have sat through, by turns funereal and clangorous, but that would have been a shame because the concert ended with the most joyous extravagantly virtuosic performance of Stravinsky’s Petrushka that I have ever heard. Piano recitals are often a tale of two halves, but there has seldom been such a strong contrast as I experienced today.

The Schumann was a surprise. Trifonov is undoubtedly a genius, the only pianist to win both the Tchaikovsky and Rubinstein competitions in the same year. A year ago, still only 25, he won the Gramophone Artist of the Year award. I recently watched an intensely communicative performance of the Chopin Preludes online, reviving my love of music that I sometimes found stale from over-familiarity. If he is able to respond to Chopin’s more overt poetry, he seemed unable to enter into Schumann’s more intimate expressive world. In the first half, he sat stiffly upright, playing with a deadpan expression, his arms stretched out as if to keep his emotional distance from the piano keys. The famous Traümerei from his Kinderszenen were played with a blank solemnity and if the child had not already fallen asleep in the penultimate piece, Kind im Einschlummern, he would not have lasted long listening to the lugubrious poet that followed. Several in the audience enjoyed their own slumbers.

The Toccata was at least fast and loud, but also over-pedalled, dashing my hopes that Trifonov would match Sviatoslav Richter’s miraculously lithe and transparent recording. A few years ago, Jonathan Biss played the second movement of Schumann’s Kreisleriana with a lyricism that was both ardent and tender, but here it was just slow and shapeless, and the final spectral gallop was more of a muted trot. I was seriously concerned that Trifonov, now bearded and wearing tails, was becoming a jaded professional, bored by what he was playing.

The real Trifonov finally showed up in the second half. He played a sequence of five of Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, with the rather solemn fourth followed by an exquisitely shaded performance of the seventh and a scintillating account of the second. He finished with the 24th, perhaps an overly portentous choice for such a brief selection, but played with impressive cumulative power.

By the end, he looked as if he was thoroughly enjoying himself. He bounded onto the stage to start Petrushka, launching into the opening bars with a broad smile almost before he was seated. Whereas he had been an impassive observer of the music in the first half, now he was fully engaged, hunched over the keyboard or even jumping off the stool, while his hands flew over the notes. It was not the most immaculate performance I have heard – he missed a few right-hand leaps and once even failed to touch the keyboard during a glissando – but it was thoroughly exhilarating to see playing of such visceral excitement. It reminded me of a live recording of Gilels in the early sixties, normally such a restrained perfectionist, playing the same music with carefree abandon. Here was a young artist sharing his prodigious gifts with an infectious joy, producing a richly deserved standing ovation that even I joined in.

There were plenty of examples of Trifonov’s imagination in all three movements, but particularly in the drama of the central movement, full of the most telling details. When I last heard him live, he played some of Ravel’s Miroirs with a storyteller’s gift, giving a cinematic sweep to what are normally static images, and he did the same here. When I compared him to Benjamin Grosvenor, I wrote of their shared gift in rethinking and thereby refreshing our own appreciation of even the most familiar music. I still believe that, and hope that the Schumann was an aberration he is unlikely to repeat, rather than an inevitable consequence of growing a beard.

Benjamin Grosvenor


Benjamin Grosvenor

After his recent piano recital in Chicago, Benjamin Grosvenor was asked what advice he would give to young pianists. Since he is only 24, he seemed a little bemused even though his first concert was nearly 14 years ago. Nevertheless, if you didn’t know his age, you could be forgiven for assuming he has been around much longer, because he is perhaps the most complete pianist I have heard live in a long time. Along with his near contemporary, Daniil Trifonov, he seems to herald a new generation of artists who combine absolute technical mastery with a quest to rethink every note, eliminate every stylistic cliché, and uncover the expressive heart of every piece. Time and again, when I have heard him online, he has revealed new facets, sometimes startlingly original, in even the most familiar music, without the novelty ever seeming like self-indulgence. I didn’t always agree with his interpretations, but they were always fresh and imaginative.

The clearest example of this gift in his Chicago recital was the famous opening movement of the Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Normally, this is played to invoke a sense of wrapt stillness, through intense concentration and an even touch. Murray Perahia was an exemplary exponent of this approach a few years ago, Kissin less so. Grosvenor instead painted a canvas with subtly variegated colors that were worthy of Turner, conveying a vivid nocturnal scene with skillful chiaroscuro. The ebb and flow of the dynamics were perfectly judged, making the interpretation seem, while we were listening, to be inevitable, banishing any alternatives. Whether the popular title is authentic to Beethoven’s original conception or not, it has never seemed so apposite.

Grosvenor selects extremely varied programs, giving him an opportunity to inhabit a wide range of styles. He began with an affectionate rendition of Schumann’s Arabesque, and continued with a sprightly Mozart sonata. However, I suspect that he feels more at home with the more romantic repertoire. The second half started with a ravishing account of Scriabin’s early Sonata No. 2, op. 19, the opening movement being warmly phrased and colored, with the right hand tracing tender filigree roulades. The presto last movement can call to mind Emperor Joseph’s famous complaint about “too many notes,” but here the right-hand torrent was propelled inexorably by driving left-hand octaves, both combining to create a compelling dramatic narrative.

He ended his recital in Spain, with rhythmically alert performances of two of Granados’ Goyescas forming a bridge to Liszt’s formidable Rhapsodie Espagnole, surely one of his most challenging works to bring off. While his performance didn’t entirely eclipse memories of Stephen Hough’s remarkable recording, or even Arnaldo Cohen’s Symphony Center recital a few years ago, Grosvenor was in full command of the notes, whether in the flamboyant rhetoric of the La Folia variations or the snapping rhythms of the Jota Aragonesa. He gave two encores, one by Moskowski and one by Nikolai Kapustin, faux jazz that I once described as sounding like a cocktail bar pianist on steroids.

I was excited to discover that Benjamin Grosvenor was appearing in Chicago, and he didn’t disappoint. He is quite famous in the UK as the youngest ever winner of the BBC Young Musician’s piano category, with a performance of the Ravel’s G-Major Concerto that was remarkably mature for an 11-year old (and can still be seen on YouTube). He obviously enjoys crowd-pleasing music; he claims to have been the youngest member of the Billy Mayerl Society by about 60 years. I am guessing that he has left Marigold and Wisteria far behind him, but he doesn’t seem to be interested in delving into the more ascetic repertoire yet. I am not expecting him to return to play the Goldberg Variations any time soon. That’s fine – there are plenty of other pieces that are well suited to his keenly intuitive musicality. And he’s still only 24.


Rudolph Buchbinder


Rudolph Buchbinder

Somehow, Rudolph Buchbinder has stayed below my radar all these years, even though he is celebrating his 70th birthday this December. He is probably better known in mainland Europe; I presume he wasn’t a regular on the South Bank when I attended concerts in London and I can’t recall seeing a Chicago recital before. However, he moves in elite company, regularly performing for the Vienna Philharmonic and other major orchestras, usually with prestigious conductors. The one time I do recall seeing him was on a PBS special, when he was performing at an outdoor concert in Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace, an implausibly picturesque setting that looks like a specially constructed set for an André Rieu concert. He gave an efficient performance of the Grieg Piano Concerto, followed by a flamboyant piano transcription of Strauss’ Die Fledermaus. This is evidently a favorite party piece of his, because he gave the same encore at this afternoon’s Symphony Center concert, forming a slightly incongruous if entertaining end to a rather serious afternoon.

I’m afraid I found much of the afternoon disappointing. He started with a fairly bland performance of one of Bach’s English Suites, fluent and generously pedaled but lacking in variety of color or imagination. Things didn’t improve with Schubert’s first set of Impromptus. These are tricky pieces to bring off because the piano textures are rather spare, particularly in the first movement, where the insistent repetition of the opening melody can become wearing unless played with the infinite subtlety that Paul Lewis displayed a couple of years ago. Buchbinder’s performance seemed rushed and clangorous, with the occasional unidiomatic rubato substituting for expressivity. The remaining movements were better, but still left me longing for the affection of a Lewis or Curzon. The audience erupted into applause at the end, making me feel more than usual like a jaded curmudgeon, so I decided to see if a glass of red wine would make me enjoy the rest of the concert more.

The second half of Beethoven sonatas was indeed better. Buchbinder is a Beethoven specialist, and he seemed more at home in music that depends more on harmonic drive than melodic color. In  the opening movement of the Sonata op. 14 no. 2, he played the opening theme with attractive fluidity and the second subject with Italianate charm. Nevertheless, having presumably played this for more than fifty years, he seems to have forgotten to care about the details. The first movement has several passages that build in intensity before a sudden piano or pianissimo marking, but these dynamic shifts, which can catch your breath in the best performances, scarcely registered in Buchbinder’s. The second movement was surely too fast for an Andante, unless he always walks like a Manhattan commuter. However, I loved the speed of his performance of the last movement, which I think is often played too slow to catch its impish humor.

The best performance by far was the Appassionata, which was played with genuine pace and drama, while always maintaining complete textual clarity, not easy at the speeds he chose. The slow variations could have been played with more dignity – he does seem to rush slow movements – but the final pages of the finale were exhilarating, particularly the coda, where Beethoven (and Buchbinder) threw caution to the wind in a thrilling  climax of wild abandon. I had no problem sharing the audience’s enthusiasm this time, and I don’t think it was the wine.

Before the Strauss transcription, Buchbinder played the Gigue from Bach’s first Partita as an encore, with a gossamer lightness and wit, far removed from the pedestrian Bach with which he opened the concert. When he displays such evident imagination and virtuosity, it makes me long to have heard him in his younger days, to see whether he showed a greater sense of wonder and affection for musical details that he now has a tendency to skate over. We are in a golden age of young pianists, with artists like Igor Levit and Jonathan Biss providing fresh insights into familiar scores such as these sonatas. Is it because they haven’t played this music so many times before? Since I will never be able to play the Appassionata the way Buchbinder can, even after decades of practice, I will probably never know.


Richard Goode

Richard Goode

Richard Goode

I was once in a chamber music group with someone who refused to listen to any music written in the nineteenth century. In fact, she thought the rot even started with Haydn and Mozart and lasted until after the First World War. The problem for her was that music from the romantic era was so self-absorbed, enervated by the self-aggrandizement of composers casting themselves as tragic heroes. I have some sympathy with her viewpoint. I have written about how I find the Byronic brooding of a piece like Liszt’s Vallée d’Obermann painfully narcissistic. I find myself wanting to tell the eponymous hero to get over himself, which explains why I could never be a therapist. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want all music to be without some inner significance for the composer. I can be moved by Schubert’s courage when facing an early death and touched by Schumann’s confessional yearning for Clara, while acknowledging that they may have lost some of the sheer joy in creativity of a composer like Bach and his Baroque contemporaries. Sometimes, music is just meant to be enjoyed as music, reaching inside us subliminally without any overt psychological agenda

Richard Goode played an all-Bach program at Chicago’s Symphony Center this afternoon. I must admit that, much as I love Bach, I am not a fan of all-Bach piano recitals. Jeremy Denk gave an exhilarating performance of the Goldberg Variations, which was over all too quickly, but that is a piece that builds inexorably to its manic conclusion. After the concert, Goode pointed out that much of Bach’s music does not progress; in some ways, it is like contemporary music in that it lives in the moment. However, those moments can be so saturated with contrapuntal detail that it can be intellectually exhausting trying to keep track. He suggested that eight or so fugues were enough for one afternoon. I can only agree.

In fact, the recital was fairly short on fugues, but not, of course, short on counterpoint. My friend would probably have loved Goode’s playing, as he seems devoid of ego, content to let the music speak for itself. He has a natural flowing style, without any obvious stylistic agenda. He is not given to stentorian declamations or sudden dynamic contrasts, and unlike András Schiff recently, he is rarely austere and never didactic. His phrasing is warm and supple, with clear but not overly precise articulation. However, he is also fleet-fingered, and so not afraid to let rip when the music calls for it, such as in the finale of Bach’s Italian Concerto. This was especially exciting as he was turning his own pages while playing at breakneck speed.

While all his playing reflects a natural musicality, I did find that it rarely made me sit up and notice in the way that Alfred Brendel did when I last heard the concerto live, in London some forty years ago. In the slow movement, Brendel sharply differentiated the crisply articulated melody in the right hand from the hushed thirds in the left, imaginatively creating a whole new sound world while respecting the intent of Bach’s original writing for a two-manual harpsichord. It is sad that Brendel played so little Bach, since his playing was truly original, although always in service to the music. Goode was also expressive but more conventionally so; the right and left hands were clearly playing on the same keyboard. At his best, as in some of the sprightlier movements in the French Suite No. 5 or the second Partita, he could really make the music dance, but I was tired and found that some of the music merged into a homogeneous blur until I was revived by the interval wine.

Like Menahem Pressler, Richard Goode concentrated on chamber music in his early career, but unlike Pressler, he didn’t wait until he was ninety before emerging as a major soloist in his own right. It is perhaps because of his biography that he doesn’t feel the need to grab us by the neck and make us pay attention. He seemed happiest playing the unassuming Sinfonias, three-part inventions written to educate Bach’s children. It was music that was never intended for a large concert hall, but Goode loves it and he plays what he loves. When asked why he plays with the music in front of him, he said he just prefers it and feels that he has earned the right to do as he pleases. And why not? I suspect that he is not particularly prone to brooding romantically. My friend would approve.

Lise de la Salle

Lise de la SalleAfter attending Lise de la Salle’s Chicago recital on Sunday, Symphony Center sent me a request to fill in an online survey about my experience. Since I was promised it would only take about seven to ten minutes of my time, I foolishly complied. It started with the usual marketing questions – how did I find out about the concert, how many people did I go with, did I feel welcomed, etc – but then moved into distinctly bizarre territory. “At any point during the concert did you lose track of time and get fully absorbed? What words best describe how the performance made you feel (max. of 6)? Did the performance raise questions in your mind? Were you going to reflect privately about the meaning of the work” I felt as if they should have warned me to lie on a couch when trying to answer. I dreaded opening each new page, wondering if they would ask me next if any of the music reminded me of the time my first pet died.

As it happens, there were points in the concert when I lost track of time, but I wasn’t going to tell that to an online shrink. That is what this blog is for. I tried to be positive though because presumably the management will read it and I hope they invite Lise de la Salle back. She is an uncommonly serious artist. Although she clearly enjoys parading her virtuoso credentials, and had chosen a formidably difficult program of mostly Ravel and Liszt, she can also be intensely communicative by drawing us into moments of utter stillness. Increasingly, I feel the purpose of music is to transport us to what Marcus Borg called “thin places,” sacred space where we feel particularly aware of the numinous, where meaning transcends words. This is most often achieved when musicians dare to suspend time, to focus on the intensity of the present, to concentrate on a single chord or phrase. There were several times in de la Salle’s recital where I felt that was what she was trying to achieve, more than any other pianists I have heard recently.

This makes her particularly well suited to Liszt, at least Liszt the mountaintop visionary rather than Liszt the barnstorming virtuoso, the Liszt who concluded his sonata with a single subterranean note.  She played a fascinating sequence of transcriptions, starting with the sombre Lacrymosa drawn from Mozart’s Requiem and ending with one of the most ecstatic climaxes I have heard in the Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. In between, she played some song transcriptions by Schumann and Schubert. Liszt is quite faithful to the spirit of these songs, even if he throws in the odd arpeggiated flourish, so Schumann was portrayed as far more youthfully ardent than Liszt would have been, while the Schubert Ständchen was even more wistful than the original, given here an especially mesmerizing performance.

The recital wasn’t all at this transcendental level. She played Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit in the first half, and while she had the notes under her fingers (and there are a lot), I felt that there wasn’t the superfine control of sonorities that, for example, Cedric Tiberghien had in his wonderful performance last year. It is extraordinary how Ravel disguises the percussive nature of the piano in Ondine, transforming hammer strikes into ripples and waves of sound. This performance had moments of great tonal beauty, but I think the water nymph splashed a little too much. I’m also not convinced that de la Salle solved the problem of making the tolling bell in Le Gibet insistently hypnotic. This death knell seemed to drift in and out of focus without any obvious reason. Still, Scarbo was as spritely as you could wish.

She ended the performance in league with the devil, playing Liszt’s Dante Sonata, followed by a lithe rendition of Prokofiev’s Suggestion Diabolique as an encore. There is a remarkable flowering of young(ish) pianistic talent in France. Last year, we heard Tiberghien and Alexandre Tharaud. What is encouraging is that they all think deeply about their music and play with thoroughly distinctive styles. The suggestion that the current generation of pianists play with a blandly homogenized technique couldn’t be farther from the truth. Lise de la Salle seems the most rhetorical of the three, perhaps the most self-consciously profound. When it works, she can be ‘intense’, ‘thoughtful’, ‘grave’, ‘serene’,  ‘visionary’, ‘transcendental’, .. I seem to have used up my six words. I’ll have to wait for the next survey.