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Archive for November, 2017

Lucas Debargue

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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.

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