The 29-year-old French pianist Lucas Debargue plays Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra under Ben Zander Thursday and Saturday (Sanders Theater and Jordan Hall, 7pm and 8pm) and Sunday (Sanders at 3pm) in concerts that also include Kodály’s Dances of Galanta and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7. Following his fourth-place finish five years ago at the Tchaikovsky Competition, Debargue is establishing his reputation as a notably independent-minded musician who apparently appeals especially to the Russian market. He took part yesterday in an extended discussion with this USSR-born reporter.
VK: Moscow, Tchaikovsky 2015. You arrived at the competition with only three to four years of piano lessons under your belt, stole the hearts of Moscow audiences, and received the prize of the audience and the music critics. The locals reported enthusiasm comparable to Van Cliburn’s triumph, of 1958. But before that came the underground period of your career. What was happening before you started your lessons with Rena Shereshevskaya?
LD: I started to get to know more about classical music when I was around 10, and I had my first shock: listening to a Mozart concerto. And then it never left me. I started with my first pedagogue when I was 11-12 and I stayed with her until age 15. She was very kind and very permissive; in Russia it would be considered too permissive. But I am very glad of what she offered me, because she let me explore the piano repertoire and make up my own ideas with my limited means of that moment. It made me conscious of many obstacles, but also it made me develop a global vision of wholeness, so it was not useless at all.
I can’t say that I quit practicing, because my conception of practicing is broader than just doing scales. Once some music infects you, you practice all the time, even when sleeping. And it’s true that for some years I stopped playing, in part because I didn’t have someone with whom to share my ideas. Things then were just a bit chaotic and actually meeting Rena proved critical, as it was my first encounter with requirements for a professional interpreter; before that I was just completely free. I was doing it my own way and with my intuition. In that sense, it was very precious to have all this time, having the possibility to develop in my own way. It was very serious step when I took the decision to become a professional musician, because I really meant it. I was not only being supported by surroundings, but also being trained step-by-step for years to achieve the aim. I never looked back from my decision decision to get all this organized with a real mentor.
So the time between when Rena and I met and the competition was four years exactly. You don’t need 15-20 years to prepare a competition if you have found a good mentor. And of course I didn’t start from zero, it would be a mistake to say I started to play the piano in 2011. I was full of music. I read literature, I was full of paintings and movies. I was full of inspiration and I had a lot of references. I had actually a strong background.
Rumor has it the by the time you came to Rena, you played a Prokofiev sonata you picked up by ear.
Yeah, the A-minor Sonata [op 28], as well as some other pieces, and, of course, I didn’t reproduce it completely accurately, but I more or less knew the frame, the themes — and I could let my fingers go. I’m much more careful now, because now I cannot go through a score without knowing every single note, and this is the difference between an amateur and professional. I met some amateurs that were very virtuosic; they can go through an enormous repertoire but without this need for every single note to sing and be crystal-clear.
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I very distinctly remember the first time I heard you play. Scriabin’s Fourth Sonata from the competition struck me as if I never heard it before. Tell me how it came about, how you started to interpret it.
Before meeting Rena, I discovered some very important recordings, Russian mostly: Horowitz, Sofronitsky. … I listened again recently to Sofronitsky’s live recording of Schubert’s last sonata. You forget about the concert, you forget about the pianist and the piano; you even forget about romantic music and about Schubert.
For me, interpretation is not just about respecting the composer’s will, because the music goes further than the composer, who is a human being, and has the weaknesses of a human being, and dies. But his music lives longer and is enriched by the later times. I am pretty sure that Bach could not have imagined how the interpretation of his music developed after his death. The music requires time and then you can see it from a different angle, and it goes way beyond the composer’s wishes. It’s possible to understand his harmonic language. And I don’t want to lose the chance to understand it, I want to study harmony, in order to get closer to this. It doesn’t mean I will write works of genius, as he clearly did, but at least it helps me to understand the deep meaning of this music and how it’s crafted.
If you heard Scriabin’s recording of the Fourth Sonata it would not necessarily have changed your interpretation.
Not automatically. It would make me think for a long time and probably change things but not necessarily in a global way, because for me it’s like research work. Each one is making a contribution.
I can speak on a very small scale about composing, because I write music myself. It’s amazing that the first time I decided to perform with my piano trio with friends, I thought I wouldn’t even need to have a look at the score, because I composed it. And the rehearsals were a mess, because when I am playing it, I am not the composer anymore. I am the interpreter, and it’s a completely different work.
You want to differentiate between Scriabin the pianist and Scriabin the composer, as likewise with Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev. Composing and playing take place in absolutely different worlds. And about Scriabin’s world: the interpretations that actually influenced me the most are Sofronitsky’s and Horowitz’s; Sofronitsky has a way of moving the beats in the bar and to moving the bars themselves like a wizard. It all flows like process of nature. And of course there is a risk when you try to think about the spirituality of music, of becoming a bit too vague. But one should never forget that music is always connected to spirituality, and Scriabin would not have written a single note without this inspiration from the cosmos.
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How much does it matter for you to know the cultural context of the piece also?
It is completely essential. The puzzle is a combination of very pragmatic elements like the musical language and grammar, but also the biography of the composer and the story of the piece. Only after you understand that do you go to the piano works to produce the sound. If I talk about drawing a line musically, it has nothing to do with musical knowledge, it’s not something that you can calculate. It’s impossible to draw a musical line and to have a clear musical target. Playing a piece is not something pragmatic. It has something to do with regular time, of course, but also with abstract time—something you can’t show it in space.
The time of the story?
I think the only thing that approaches it is time in literature, and also the innovations in the quantum physics in the beginning of 20th century, and it goes together with Bergson’s philosophy and with Proust. I am finishing Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet for the second time, and all it deals with is understanding of time. It is not a regular line. So one hour is not equal to one hour; it depends on the density of elements inside, and three minutes of a Scarlatti sonata has nothing to do with three minutes in Tristan. It’s another way to feel time, it’s not the same three minutes. We need another way to examine it.
After the triumph in Moscow, you were in a way propelled into Scriabin’s dream role. He was possessed by the idea of changing the world with music.
Yeah, with his art, even to the point of changing the matter of the universe.
And after the Tchaikovsky you found yourself in a position to impact the world musically, because after the reception Moscow gave you, you could program any music you wanted, and audiences would devour it.
In Russia, that was the case, and perhaps in Germany, but in most places people just want to get a nice time, which is fully understandable. But to be musically shocked, to be musically moved, that is something quite special. And I think that the Russian audiences had expect something special at concerts. After the competition I could feel this opportunity to actually experiment. Because for me a concert is a live experiment. As a pianist, I am like a crazy scientist, opening his laboratory to the people.
You spoke once in an interview about the magic connection between a rock group and its audience. How is the connection that you experienced with the audience similar or different?
Wen there is a level of concentration in the hall I can feel it, and transform it into sounds. And sometimes, when the attention is less intense, it’s harder to build something, so I just play. But I need the audience support to produce something satisfying. You cannot make a concert like a museum exhibition. The audience is participating in the moment: there are heartbeats, people breathing in the hall. When all this comes together, and you connect, you can tap all this energy. I strongly believe that that that’s the reason why every concert is different; you can never do the same thing twice.
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Another piece I wanted to talk to you about is Prokofiev’s Second Concerto. Your interpretation is completely different from what one can typically hear. And I enjoy other performances; for example I don’t want to live without Yuja Wang’s romp through the roaring ‘20s, but yours is an intense personal drama which tells me much more.
I think that is the treasure of classical music. When some friends tell me that boring classical music bores them and that they prefer pop, I ask for their reasons. And they say, because there is no freedom there. But for me classical music allows more freedom … I can play one way and Horowitz another. And it’s still the same piece, but you see it from a different angle. There is no true interpretation; Yuja finds truth in excitement, echoing technology and a bright vision of skyscrapers. That is valuable. But I see in Prokofiev’s friend who committed suicide to whom he dedicated the piece. And it’s one of the most dramatic pieces by Prokofiev. He kept it in his heart for all his life. You know that he lost the score and rewrote it from scratch 10 years afterwards, so it was written originally in 1912 and rewritten in 1922. It is openly very romantic, yet also tortured, dark and full of bitterness— that’s important to put in relief. The form of the concerto is completely falling apart; it opens with an impression of the big tableau. The themes develop slowly, and then you have this big vision, and a cadenza coming out of nowhere. Suddenly it’s not a concerto anymore: the pianist becomes crazy and imposes his own vision. It’s unique in the concert repertoire. The movement stops developing and fades away before this monster comes out of nowhere. This is also very original, symphonic; you never have this kind of movement in other piano concertos, except that in Brahms’s second, there is also such a dæmonic place.
The history provided the monsters. It starts with a personal drama of 1913, and then history takes over from there.
But at the same time the balance of the piece is amazing; if you look carefully throughout the four movements there is a symmetry, and also some thematic elements hidden and reappearing. It’s very well-crafted, but it’s important to go through this, like floating with Charon, and you see us among monstrous figures and forms. It’s certainly about sweating, because it’s technically difficult for the soul to go through this concert, very tough, actually, and it’s an experience that can’t be replaced, and that is why I played this piece, actually to go through this. And of course, after playing or hearing this, you feel older. It changes you.
I hope to be able to hear it one day,
I will play it two times in Russia in April. Some of it will be recorded, I’m sure.
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You seem comfortable in such different settings as rock concert and jazz club too. Do we have to live with completely separate stylized experiences that don’t overlap, or is there opportunity to cross the boundaries?
I would like to develop this thought; it’s very recently become my major. I started to know more about what it is to perform onstage — what it is to develop an interpretation, to learn and work fast as well. But now, because I feel more comfortable, I feel better onstage. That was not the case two years, four years ago. So now I start thinking about ways of putting all these experiences together, because it’s not that it’s divided for artists, rather, it’s divided for the audience. Which is terrible, because for me music is all about the same thing. It’s a message. It’s the same language spoken. You can imagine different dialects, but it’s the same language in the same message.
The language is the same; maybe the vocabulary is different.
It’s not made to divide people, it’s made to have people feel like one. And it’s strongly connected to morals; the notion of beauty in art is connected to the notion of behaving well. They should never have been separated actually.
Well, this, this sounds great but then, if you look on the other side of the spectrum, it looks scary, because music that is very listenable and easy to get used to becomes mindless entertainment.
There has to be a level of sophistication to unify the experiences. Pragmatic knowledge about the language is essential. And surprisingly, many musicians do not possess this. A lot of conductors haven’t a clue about the harmony, and ccannot hear harmony progression in a Romantic piece. They would be able to play from the score on the piano, but not hear and understand it and understand the function of the chords. Where is the dominant and where the second degree and where is the augmented chord and two trends, the transformation of the augmented chords? I am studying it intensively because it’s very hard, it’s very intellectual, it’s very sensitive and I spend a lot of time on this. I never think that I know it; it’s work in progress all the time and it takes hours and hours to approach. All the great masters of music spent years on it; if you think about Schubert and Beethoven, getting harmony lessons at the end of life. Can you imagine this, after writing all the masterpieces, they said, “Oh yeah I would love to know a bit more about harmony and sit again in a class.” And it freaks me out that some conductors and interpreters, and even composers nowadays, imagine that they know enough to just perform. For me, the balance you were looking for has to do with morals, and it has to do with the responsibility of the musicians. The performer is very close to a priest. The priest sometimes has to improvise a sermon from a text that is captivating on a daily basis.
And it’s not about just memorizing a piece and then playing as you feel; it’s about doing your duty as a musical researcher, very thoughtfully , because there is a intellectual dimension that goes far beyond memorizing. People are amazed by the capacity of memorizing, but it’s exactly like an actor learning a Shakespeare piece. We have the ability to memorize without understanding, which is tricky, because it should not be possible. You need to put more responsibility on the way you memorize and the way you practice it in order to share it with the audience; only then can you feel free on stage, and then the message can be much more intense.
That’s what your tour of Russia demonstrated, where the famous reaction of people was, “What am I doing here? I never listened to even Mozart, and here I am listening to a Medtner program.” And it works because you’ve done your homework and you delivered the story from Medtner in a way that captured the audience.
Our bodies, our ears, our minds are receptive to beautiful music. People don’t enjoy it because I put in their faces the picture of Medtner, the picture of Beethoven. That is actually distressing for people who don’t know very much. The music of Medtner, Rachmaninov, Bach, Beethoven has the same rules. It’s a mistake to say that each composer has his own rules, imagining that composers have godlike wills. Some teachers and some critics and musicologists have earned their livings with this notion. But it’s a fake news that Mozart resides in a glass dome, or Beethoven only in a museum. There is no museum of composers; they were human beings, and they had big responsibilities, and some even knew what they were doing. Mozart was admired as a child prodigy. Can you imagine how difficult it was for him to stand as a composer, because everyone was expecting the little boy playing blindfolded and crossing hands. And when he was older, he was less impressive for the audience. So, how could you stand as a composer? It was hard for him. He enjoyed some success with his piano concertos in Vienna, but not always. Don Giovanni, for example, was a total failure. If you dig a bit, if you are more precise about the life of the composer, you discover this up close. I think that any single performance should develop this feeling of feeling closer to the composer.
Yet, you will find a musicologist who will say, it’s wrong to adapt a Scarlatti sonata to your personal manner because Scarlatti meant it to be difficult. It’s like the beginning of Hammerklavier. It’s impossible to play, and you will find musicologists who say, Yeah, but Beethoven wanted it to be difficult. But the keyboards were not the same. It’s obvious that Beethoven on our pianos would have written and arranged it a different way. And it’s ridiculous how musicologists will say it has to be played exactly how it is written, and then the other school will say, No, we can do whatever we want. They are both wrong. It’s not about doing whatever you want. It’s not about knowing exactly what is written. It’s something in between.
Once you make a score your own, learning it really by heart and meaning it, then of course you have to experiment with it, and you have to try things, because it requires the help of the interpreter. Composers cannot fully express their wishes with notation. There are many dark zones that you have to reach by really squeezing more juice from the score. And this requires a lot of time. This is sometimes a frustrating aspect of my life, is that I have to be very fast, because I’m almost always on tour. Then I am resting for one week. And sometimes I can feel that the audience and everyone, the audience and the people in the musical world, they don’t want musicians to rest. When you are resting, people are scared; They say, “Oh, it means that he has no concerts anymore.” No, it is just that it would mean I am learning.
You must now really appreciate that period when you had freedom to explore, before it became impossible….
I am very grateful to all those years, and of course at some point, I will need to stop playing for maybe one or two years to go deeply into things. Because now it’s impossible: I play 70 concerts a year and am taking more than 100 flights a year. So it’s possible to play nicely, but it’s impossible to delve deeply. Presenters, promoters, audiences don’t understand that. They think that if I don’t play for one month, maybe I’m sick. Maybe I’m less attractive for the presenter. You have to be very well-prepared and have some things to do, to feed your audience; otherwise you risk a lot.
The career must go either up or out….
It is sick. It should not be this way. If you think about how it was in the ’70s and ’80s, big musicians could rest for five years, for 10 years, to just look for balance, to have a possibility to build a family, maybe….
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How much do you care about the instrument? I noticed when you played Scarlatti at La Grange De Meslay, the Steinway sounded almost like a harpsichord in some fast passages.
It’s nice you say that because it’s exactly the effect I was looking for, when recording the four CDs for Sony Music. Recently I played on the fantastic new Bösendorfer 280VC. It matched my wishes and interpretation … actually part of the interpretation is due to the inspiration of the harpsichord and the Scott Ross recordings. The piano has so many possibilities, much more than the harpsichord. But one should not forget the harpsichord when playing its music. I play more with the fingers than with the wrists and with the arms. And this is a different, and not a bad technique. Some people in Tchaikovsky competition and later critics questioned my technique because I used fingers too much. We all are different. Pianists all have different ways. Some are using the wrists and the weight of the arms more. And it also depends on our bodies and natural constitutions, but I am looking for a certain digital pleasure, and also for the kind of repertoire that giver me this digital pleasure.
And then of course when you play your Quatuor Symphonique, in the finale [Zouk] I really enjoyed that the piano sounded like a good pop recording from the ’70s.
I’m glad you listen like this, because not everyone does.
I absolutely loved it, and I must say that it was a bit of a guilty pleasure. But what made me feel less guilty was that even though it was immensely listenable, the musical ideas were quite rich.
It’s openly romantic, but it’s also modern in some aspects and contemporary in other aspects. I am the only person to have played the piece, and I wrote the rhythm to pop like a wishbone. I wonder how another classical pianists would deal with this, even if it’s written precisely, because it has a kind of drive and groove that I’m not sure notation can convey. I have the same problem with my new violin sonata. After years, I’m still struggling to really find the missing ideas. In the third movement I imitate some jazz or rock loops. Also syncopations. I wonder how a classical musicians seeing this would perform it. I don’t want to write on the score “Play it with swing.” In fact, it has to be played straight, while also in a groove. … it’s difficult to express.
Speaking of swing, I was listening to how you played Scarlatti in New York last month. At some point it felt like if you started a jazz improvisation in the middle of one of the passages, it would have been completely organic. Some composers swing naturally. People used to say for a long time that Bach swings. I think it’s just the question of freedom.
I would like to know more. Why do you take guilty pleasure listening to the Quatuor. It’s interesting for me, because I don’t have the opportunity to talk much about my pieces; most people just consider me as a pianist and don’t care about the composer.
Listening specifically to the finale, to the Zouk, it kind of gives me the same joy that I experienced when listening to ’70s rock one day, and therefore my immediate thought was, I must be missing something; am I am missing an opportunity to find some complexity that the composer had in mind?
But at the same time, the rhythm is not easy. I mean we know we get used to it. Listen to what we hear now: it’s lounge music, it’s like a fade. But still, it’s very complex rhythmically; we forget about all these layers. And actually, I wanted to put it in contrast with a very romantic idea. In the Zouk, you have this kind of Afro-beat part, and then comes the contrasting section with no beat at all, but rather some contrapuntal voicing. The old ideas develop and go together because I want to show how you can endlessly combine all musical elements. You may think, “Oh, it’s pop music,” or, “Oh, it’s from a toccata for solo piano by so and so…” . It’s the same elements, it’s the same music, but then you just move one parameter like that, and suddenly it becomes something else. This is what I enjoy to do as a composer. I just press this button on my control; panel and then it sounds really nice. And then with another button, and another layer, suddenly it sounds like jazz. … I put it on the bass, and it’s the same thing, but when you send the bass it sound like the …
… theme that comes back in the violin solo?
As I said it’s a guilty pleasure, first impression, but then you realize how rich it is in terms of musical ideas, and it’s just pure joy because of that, no guilty feeling in the end.
I also have a cello sonata and a piano trio, and a concertino for piano and string orchestra, plus 15 melodies for voice and piano, (not recorded yet. I will put them on my YouTube channel). I wanted to call the second movement of the violin sonata Hendrix, because he’s imitating the da da da solo. And playing of course with Barbara Hendricks — hence the two. I was talking with a great friend who follows what I’m doing. And he says, “No, but it’s not sounding,” and he knows a lot about rock music, “You should not name it thus, because the people will expect something like Hendrix, and it’s not really.” And I said, “Yeah, but it’s like an evocation; it doesn’t have to sound exactly like him. It’s a tribute.”
And when you called your slow movement Langsamer Satz, you didn’t want to copy from Berg.
It’s like a tone poem and an invocation, but maybe I should rename it.
Back to guilty pleasures, this divide between academic music and easy listening is only hurting everybody. But in a way, what you did in your quartet was not very much different from what Brahms did with his Zingarese finales when he found the magic of “Hungarian” tunes.
And Ravel with Tsigane, and with Bolero and with La Valse. He takes the Strauss valse and joins it with his own harmonic language and structure to make it like a nightmare. For me it’s exactly like this; I had a vision of a nightmare in the nightclub scene. What if all this would not be right, because as I told you, it has to do with morals; all art has to do with morals. What if all this kind of fun would not be right? Young people who go to dance in nightclubs don’t see a problem and don’t see something wrong with that. What if there were something wrong with that? And that’s what I wanted to do. Musically it’s exactly like Ravel with La Valse. People are dancing in Vienna like this, but there is a war; the don’t realize that they are dancing like skeletons in a nightmare. And I will show this. To take elements of folk music and mix them up and show something else and use them to show something else, this is the strength of music. When Bach writes a Sarabande or a minuet, it’s not a traditional minuet, it’s a reinterpretation of a minuet. And what about devices of Chopin? It’s completely transcribed, completely transformed.
But at the same time, one should recognize the elements of folk music. Some contemporary composers will say “Yeah, I use pop rhythms, like Papa papapapapapapapa,” but when you listen to the music you don’t recognize that at all, you just recognize the chaos. In a lot of contemporary music the problem is form. Composers want to create their own forms, but it’s impossible to understand. The great masters, and even the more innovative, like Bartok for example, partake of the classical forms, even with the more experimental works. And even when Beethoven experiments in his last quartets, you still recognize the form. Liszt’s piano concerto . which I will play with the Boston Philharmonic, is in a single movement but several sections, and you can still recognize elements from the traditional slow movement elements of the traditional finale.
In much of contemporary music we see these titles from the great nowhere to the great nothing. Then you listen to the thing and it’s impossible to recognize the composer. Some years ago Boulezean experimentation was in vogue, and it had to sound harsh. Now, though we are back to a kind of harmony with modal things, I still wonder “Where is the melody I can sing in my shower?”
I also have my guilty pleasure as a classical music lover. I am happy, when I go out to a concert, to have a melody remain in my mind. Is that really a lot to ask for? I can sing the Rite of Spring from beginning to end. But in modern pieces, where is the melody, where’s the character? When I’m discovering new music, I need to have a hero, I need to have someone to follow in this mess. Because otherwise I feel completely lost, betrayed actually.