‘Lucas Debargue: To Music’ Explores His Multi-Faceted Gifts

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French pianist Lucas Debargue, 29, is the subject of a new film by Martin Mirabel.

Lucas Debargue: To Music. A film by Martin Mirabel. Bel Air Media/Naxos DVD 2.110639. Total Time: 111:00

DIGITAL REVIEW — In the past few years, the French pianist Lucas Debargue has emerged as one of the most gifted and multi-faceted artists of his generation. He is 29 years old, with a dazzling technique and wide-ranging musical interests that include jazz — which he plays remarkably well — and Hungarian gypsy music, which he plays with jaw-dropping mastery. He also finds time to compose some pretty interesting music. This DVD is a tribute to Debargue created by his friend Martin Mirabel. It provides ample opportunity to appreciate Debargue’s diverse musical persona as well as the complex human being who is constantly searching for the means to express himself.

Debargue first gained international recognition at the age of 25, when he placed fourth and won the critics’ Special Prize at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 2015. Unlike most successful pianists, he had not spent his formative years practicing the piano day and night. He started piano lessons at the age of 11 but stopped them four years later. He found that he preferred to spend his time reading great literature. And he continued in this direction, taking a degree at Paris Diderot University. Only then, with the help of Rena Shereshevskaya, his new piano teacher, he decided to get serious about becoming a world-class pianist. After turning a lot of important heads at the Tchaikovsky Competition, he launched his career in earnest, making appearances in all the important musical centers in Europe.

The DVD begins with Debargue onstage at the Tchaikovsky Competition playing a short and low-key encore: Tchaikovsky’s Valse sentimentale. We see him next two months later back in the same venue playing excerpts from Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Vladimir Fedoseyev conducting. Debargue comes across on both occasions as competent but not exceptional. In an interview recorded later, Debargue says that he hates playing concertos. The problem for him is that there is too little rehearsal time with the orchestra to get the musical result he would like.

We meet the more interesting Debargue in the next sequence, in which Shereshevskaya coaches him through Chopin’s Grande Valse brilliante. She is a very forceful teacher and full of ideas about what the composer had in mind. Debargue is clearly responsive to everything she says. But then we see Debargue playing the piece in performance, and his interpretation is very different. We get Shereshevskaya’s reaction: “I almost had a heart attack. He spent an hour learning what I told him. Then he added Lucas Debargue. And it was a delicious salad.” Indeed. During the course of the DVD, we often see Debargue and his teacher together. She is unfailingly supportive of her prize pupil yet never misses an opportunity to make constructive comments. But she is also the first to recognize that, while Debargue willingly soaks up everything she has to give him, he has a reservoir of talent that can carry him far beyond what he has been taught.

The more we get to know Debargue in this DVD, the more interesting he becomes. We learn that he continues to be conflicted about playing the piano. He loves giving public performances, but he is rarely satisfied with his work and frequently wonders why he is wearing himself out traveling constantly to give recitals. He is certainly more at home playing chamber music. We see him in Weimar playing a Haydn trio with two close friends, the brothers David (violin) and Alexandre (cello) Castro-Balbi. These are three hugely talented young men who enjoy each other’s company and have a special chemistry when they play together. They really come into their own with a totally idiomatic and thrilling Vittorio Monti Czárdás performance. We meet them again later in the documentary rehearsing and performing a new work written for them by Debargue himself. It is a tonal piece with haunting melodies reminiscent of Shostakovich, and impressive enough that one is left wanting to hear more of Debargue, composer.

But there is even more to Debargue than composing and playing classical music on the piano. He loves jazz — all kinds of jazz. Alone in his studio, he plays Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer” with a great sense of style and offers a highly perceptive analysis of what the music is all about and how it should be played. And then he is in Chicago going from one jazz club to another. He and his friend Martin end up at Jazz Showcase, where Lucas sits in with the house drummer. Later in the DVD, in a bonus segment, Lucas does an extended improvisation on Duke  Ellington’s “Caravan.” Debargue’s piano playing is nothing like Ellington’s, nor does it resemble what jazz virtuosos on the order of Art Tatum or Oscar Peterson would have done with Caravan.” Instead, we get something more along the lines of a Chick Corea, especially in his more recent recordings, in which he draws freely on trends in contemporary classical music.

In classical music, Debargue, who records exclusively for Sony Classical, has wide interests, from Bach and Scarlatti through Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and Tchaikovsky. He has shown particular interest in the music of Nikolai Medtner, and an excerpt from the Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 5 is included as a bonus track.

As mentioned earlier, this film was directed by Debargue’s friend Martin Mirabel. But Mirabel also appears in the film in conversation with his subject and as a frequent companion. In the very last shot, Debargue and Mirabel are seen from behind walking down a dark street together. Not much is said about Debargue’s personal life in the film, but it seems clear that few people are closer to him than Mirabel and his teacher, Rena Shereshevskaya.  And the film succeeds very well in both showcasing the gifted and probing artist Lucas Debargue and in revealing the intense and conflicted human being who is also Lucas Debargue. This is a man still searching for his identity. But perhaps this very uncertainty and vulnerability is what makes him such a compelling interpreter.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.ludwig-van.com (formerly musicaltoronto.org) and www.myscena.org.