Though French pianist Lucas Debargue took fourth place at the Tchaikovsky International Competition in 2015, he’s the competitor whose career has skyrocketed since.
Indeed, he is frequently compared to Croatian pianist Ivo Pogorelich, the eccentric soloist who was eliminated in third round of the 1980 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw. Pogorelich gained instant international fame when pianist Martha Argerich resigned from the jury in protest and declared him a “genius.”
When Debargue makes his debut Nov. 19 on the Symphony Center Presents Piano Series, he’ll display his unconventional approach with a program of less frequently heard works (from his third recording for Sony Classical. The release is available digitally now, and a compact-disc version is set for release two days before the concert).
Members of the Tchaikovsky Competition jury split over Debargue no doubt because of his unusual technique and background. In his youth, he was largely self-taught, and he took at least one extended break from the instrument for other pursuits. It was not until 2011, when he met celebrated Russian teacher Rene Shereshevskaya and began studies with her, that he decided to pursue a professional piano career. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” wrote music critic Damian Thompson in the Spectator of London. “Scales played with only the thumb and index finger, and his pinkie sticking up as daintily as Hyacinth Bucket’s. One piano teacher reportedly walked out in protest at this ‘amateur’ technique.”
But in today’s digital world, when virtually every moment at major competitions is streamed live, the public plays a much bigger role than in the past. Debargue puts it this way: “It’s the competition, but it’s also what is happening around the competition.” In this case, while the jury disagreed over Debargue’s talents, critics, audiences in the hall and keyboard fans following along at home on the streaming site Medici.tv were enthusiastically on his side. “It happened that my second solo round with the Ravel Gaspard de la Nuit and Medtner’s First Piano Sonata was a big, big success for the audience and a success on the ’net, because it was viewed and reviewed a lot on Medici.tv,” he said.
As media and online attention spiked around Debargue, concert organizers and other power brokers were paying attention. After the contest, Sony Classical signed him, and Debargue released his first album in March 2016. Meanwhile, he has gone on to debuts in major concert halls worldwide. “I would not say whether it’s good or bad to have the audience’s weight,” he said. “But it was important in my case that the audience was very attentive and responsive to what I did, and the press followed it and got interested in my story.”
In Chicago, Debargue’s program opens with Franz Schubert’s Sonatas in A Minor, D. 784, and A Major, D. 664. While many pianists zero in on the composer’s better-known final three sonatas, because in Debargue’s words they are “epic” and “very demonstrative,” he prefers these two earlier works. “I was much more interested in the sonatas that are called ‘little ones’ — the A Major and A Minor,” he said. “These sonatas caught my attention much more, because I found more space to work, to express and to go through the details. I’m very, very obsessed by the details in the scores.”
Rounding out the line-up is the monumental Sonata No. 2 in A Major, Op. 21, by Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937), one of Poland’s greatest composers. Arthur Rubinstein premiered the piece in 1911, and it has been rarely heard since. Debargue discovered it when he was 14 or 15 years old. He did not have the technique to play it then, but he knew he eventually would. “This day came, finally, and now I can play it by heart,” he said. “I can understand this piece. This is really what is most important for me, to understand how a piece works and how it is made and to try to approach the composer’s thoughts.”
TOP: Lucas Debargue in the cover photo of his latest release on Sony Classical. | Photo: Felix Broede/Sony Classical
VIDEO: Debargue plays Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A Minor, D. 784 (from YouTube)