Lucas Debargue, the 25-year-old French pianist who was the most talked-about contender in the 2015 Tchaikovsky Competition, is about to release his debut recording at Sony Classical.
Right from Debargue's opening performances in the first rounds of the competition, generally considered to be one of the world's top piano competitions, he set off a groundswell of enthusiasm. By the time the finals began, it had swelled to a tidal wave, prompted not only by his intense, muscular, intelligent playing and lyrical phrasing, but also by the very circuitous path that had led him to the Tchaikovsky.
Debargue didn't begin playing the piano until the age of 11, and the only lessons he took were at the music school in the little town of Compiègne. The intense period that followed was one of discovery, teaching himself to play, learning by ear and "piecing things together". "I spent hours downloading things from the Internet, learning them and playing them by ear. I was absolutely mad about classical music... and had this overpowering urge to find a way of expressing what was going on inside me."
At 17, he gave up the piano altogether after failing to find a mentor capable of helping him share his love of music with others, and frustrated with playing solely for his own enjoyment. He then took up the bass guitar and joined a rock band. He also started studying what was to become the second love of his live: literature.
He took up the piano again at the age of 20 when a friend, who remembered how he used to play, invited him to perform at his town's annual music festival. His performance was so amazing that he was put in touch with the renowned Russian piano teacher, Rena Shereshevskaya. "I started piano so late that I had never really worked at it until I met Rena: I had no technique," he says.
His is such an unusual story, there had to be a twist. "The real winner in the Tchaikovsky Competition is the man who came last," wrote The Spectator (UK). Despite coming fourth in the final round, his remarkable talent was recognised by the Moscow Music Critics Association's prize for "the pianist whose incredible gift, artistic vision and creative freedom have impressed the critics as well as the audience". Valery Gergiev himself, as the jury's chairman, broke protocol by letting him play in the winners’ gala instead of the first prize winner Dmitry Masleev.
Ismene Brown, in The Telegraph (UK), praised Debargue's "artistry, originality and technical brilliance", adding that he was "miraculous... His total concentration on tone rather than technique immediately set him apart from the more virtuoso candidates". In The Spectator, Damian Thompson hailed his "extraordinary performance" and wrote: "Perhaps it’s his intellect — he 'argues' the music with a confidence worthy of Richter."
The centrepiece of his debut album, slated for release on 25 March 2016, is Ravel's monumentally challenging Gaspard de la nuit, which Debargue played in the second round of the competition to great acclaim and is one of the most difficult piano pieces in the repertoire. "It's a great spiritual work. It's like a Goya painting, filled with light and darkness." The recording also includes four coruscating sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti; Chopin’s emotionally intense Ballade No. 4; Liszt’s devilish Mephisto Waltz; and smaller works by Grieg (Lyric Pieces op. 47 no. 3, "Melody") and Schubert (Moment musical op. 94 no. 3). Debargue says, "I chose the repertoire to go from early Scarlatti to Ravel, with a wonderful romantic bridge of Chopin and Liszt to go between them."
Sony Classical, mars 2016