The bigger the competition stage, the more arrogant the jurors, the greater the risk for original-thinking competitors to fall by the wayside. In recent years the starrier events have all been accused of unpardonable miscarriages of justice if not downright abuses of position and misplaced gestures of favouritism. A far from healthy, open place, with all manner of personal conflicts, suspicions even of sabotaged pianos to overcome, it takes a brave soul tough in fibre to contest the arena these days. Divided and bickering, split by non-Russian dissenters, the 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow co-chaired by Valery Gergiev, with nearly half the jury drawn from old-guard Soviets or current stalwarts – Bashkirov, Dorensky, Matsuev, Ovchinnikov – certainly got it very wrong in downgrading the Frenchman Lucas Debargue to fourth, depriving him of a medal. Dismissing the farce, wanting to see fair play done, putting to shame the teacher who reputedly walked out because of his unorthodox fingerings, the Moscow Music Critics Association, vindicating Boris Berezovsky's support, rightly saw fit to award him their prize for “the pianist whose incredible gift, artistic vision and creative freedom” impressed the most.
Given Debargue's independence of spirit and in-demand profile since (a recording contract with Sony Classical plus around fifty concerts in the coming year, from Europe to the Far East), I doubt if he cares one way or the other. A late developer not yet thirty, largely self-taught into his late teens, with a passion for literature, jazz, improvisation and composition, still a student of Rena Shereshevskaya (of Vlassenko/Flier lineage) at the École Normale de Musique de Paris Alfred Cortot, he's a young man who brings dream and imagination to his music-making. He makes us want to listen – and we do, from first note to last. That's a rare quality.
Debargue's way with Schubert is not markedly Habsburg in nuance – he filters the Viennese manner through vaguely Slavic lenses (Emil Gilels lurking in dark corners) – nor does he look to Anglo-Brendel tradition. Nevertheless there are characteristics of beat and phrasing, a way with time and rumination, redolent of the former, as well as a rigour familiar from post-thirties Albion-émigré thinking. In the A-minor Sonata (1825), he invites us to savour its Roman columns, to glimpse the singer-symphonist, the pianist-orchestrator, to explore worlds Mahler was to borrow.
The first movement (exposition repeat omitted) is a mix of granite façade and wandering poetry; the Andante a thespian-voiced tinted study in painting and ornamentation; the culminant Allegro vivace (taken at sabre-drawn speed, only marginally reined-in at the end) a bridge from the tumbling streams of the Third Symphony's Tarantella to the swirls and eddies of Smetana's ‘Vltava’ (Má vlast). Individual touches abound, the micro-rhythmic connection between notes, their particulars of attack and die-away, illuminating anima as much as persona. Occasionally, the attention to what Schubert wanted highlights the handed-down generalisations of others: whatever the reasoning behind the prolonged 'Furtwängler' pauses following each of the two diminuendo hairpins at 2’45” and 2’57” of the Finale impact as perilously expiring, psychologically distressed gasps all but suspending life – among the temple-keepers, Sokolov gets closest, to a lesser degree Gilels, but, missing the moment, the majority conspicuously fail to, from Solomon, Richter, Brendel, Barenboim and Pollini to Rösel, Badura-Skoda, Schiff, Uchida, Lewis...
Left to speak for itself, quietly pressing its ardour, the sunny, bitter-sweet 'Little' A-major Sonata (1819) – the expansive D959 is in the same key – written for one of Schubert's attractions of the heart, the eighteen-year-old Josephine von Koller, is simplistic and beautiful. The “pretty” Fräulein must have had persuasive fingers – from the notoriously tricky legato spread of the opening subject to the semiquaver runs and debate of the Finale, this has never been a Leichte Sonate.
Debargue catches the spirit, playing with mood, occasionally going his own way, conscious of style and taste. At every turn, in every gliding shadow, he reflects the Schubert of André Tubeuf's booklet essay: “He passes from light to shade and from one mood to another, without lingering there for long. Private suffering is revealed through a smile alone. It is enough for a single cloud to darken the Styrian sky to make us suddenly shudder.” A song to be born, words to be discovered, suffuse the night-fall murmurs and “weary world” appoggiaturas of the Andante, a magical cameo. Come journey's end, Schubert's fortissimo is exchanged for two softly mezzo-forte chords contextualised within the tenor of the theme. No rough-wool adieu here, just a shy au revoir gifted with a twilight kiss.
Karol Szymanowski's monstrously demanding Second Sonata, premiered by Arthur Rubinstein in Warsaw in 1911, has been championed in modern times by Marc-André Hamelin, having featured in Richter's repertory since the early-fifties. It's a nearly half-hour marathon in two sections, the (longer) second a seismic, suite-like traversal of antique forms and procedures climaxing in a four-part fugue of athletic turn and capricious flair.
The composer placed its technical challenge on a par with Beethoven's ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata and Liszt's Transcendental Studies: “I don’t know who will be playing all that, because it’s long and devilishly difficult.” Indeed – long, difficult, contrapuntally elaborate music for learning and absorbing (no Sunday afternoon walk-in-the-park), speaking the parlance of its place (the Russified/German language of Scriabin) jewelled in Baroque throwback and clothed in a late-Romantic intensity of Brahmsian legacy, no assault on intellect or emotion spared. Lose sight of its topography, fail to clarify its density, indulge its seduction and excesses, and it's a work that can spring traps without warning, not a safety-net in sight.
Debargue faces it head-on, bringing to bear a fusion of lyricism, architectural perspicacity, and seven octaves of luscious keyboard colour, his palette ranging from physical brilliance to scherzando delicacy, rich articulate pedalling to secco feathering, his dynamic mapping taking us on a fantasy trip from smouldering murmurs and languorous sighs through glittering conversation to epic tuttis orchestrally sustained. Magisterially powered, this is outstanding pianism, grandly produced in a luminous acoustic.