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Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)
Sonata in A, K. 208 [5:00]
Sonata in A, K. 24 [4:22]
Sonata in C, K. 132 [4:42]
Sonata in D minor, K. 141 [3:52]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Ballade No. 4 [12:02]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Mephisto Waltz No. 1 [12:45]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Gaspard de la Nuit [24:39]
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Melody Op. 47 No. 3 [5:09]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Moment musical No. 3 from D. 780 [2:32]
Variation I on Scarlatti’s Sonata K. 208 [2:27]
Lucas Debargue (piano)
rec. live, 20-22 November 2015, Salle Cortot, Paris
SONY CLASSICAL 88875 192982 [77:28]

Like Ivo Pogorelich and Freddy Kempf, Lucas Debargue caused a sensation at a major piano competition by losing. He took fourth prize at the 2015 Tchaikovsky Competition (behind, among others, the excitingly talented Lukas Geniušas - review) despite being largely self-taught, and despite spending his late teenage years not playing piano at all. Glowing praise from some jurors, and that savant-like biography, have landed Debargue a contract with Sony.

This debut recording is taken from live recordings in Paris shortly after Debargue’s “victory,” including some of the works he played at the competition. It reveals a truly eccentric artist with individual ideas, for better and worse.

First, I must point out that the self-taught Debargue has created his own piano technique, which outraged some of the competition judges. At times, one wonders if one can hear it on this recording; in some difficult works, notably Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz, there are regular tiny pauses between phrases, as if the pianist must reposition his hands between one bar and the next. In addition, Debargue has a not-coincidental preference for playing rather slowly.

This is most evident in that Mephisto Waltz (12:45), but also in the slightly draggy Chopin Ballade and in the middle movement (“Le gibet”) of Ravel’s Gaspard. The Liszt and Chopin are, I’m afraid, not successes. Richter and others have played Chopin slowly, but Debargue has another issue: an unrefined approach to dynamics. He can speed up and slow down as necessary, and he can do prettifying rubato, but he seems to settle into a medium-loud groove. I wonder if he’d be more willing to play softly, and explore gradations of softness, in a studio recording.

Gaspard might be the best performance on the disc, though it will still be controversial. Operatic and dramatic, this performance opts for bigness rather than restraint. “Le gibet” is studded with unexpected (and certainly unwritten) fortissimo chords, used to add exclamation marks to Ravel’s sentences. More liberties taken with the score help enliven “Scarbo,” where Debargue gets the mood right, even if he doesn’t offer the level of sheer terror (and virtuosity) one hears from pianists like Pogorelich or Herbert Schuch.

Like the rest of the offerings, the Scarlatti sonatas and encores are highly individual and will inspire different reactions among different listeners. The first time I listened to Debargue’s Scarlatti, I found it willful and drab; the second time I felt better about it. Among willfully eccentric Scarlatti interpreters, though, he must rank behind Mikhail Pletnev and Yevgeny Sudbin. A Lyric Piece by Edvard Grieg, stretched to the very limit of slowness, seriously tested my patience, but a friend of mine thought it was the best track on the disc.

Recorded sound is close but good, except for a few passages in “Scarbo,” where Debargue’s loud playing of very high notes seems to have confused the recording equipment, which renders them as a sort of electric blur. The booklet includes an extensive interview with the pianist that many readers will find helpful as an introduction to both his biography and his style.

Lucas Debargue is trying to find his way into the piano world’s inner circle of inspired eccentrics, with the likes of Pogorelich, Michel Block, and Grigory Sokolov. He’s certainly not there yet, but he’s also just 25 years old. This debut recital suggests that the imagination, originality, and stubborn determination are there. Perhaps experience and wisdom will yield better results.

Brian Reinhart



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