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"The piano’s just something mechanical. When you start putting life into this big machine that’s when the music begins to appear"
24 JUL 15 Here’s a long, satisfying interview by French music mag Parlons Piano with Lucas Debargue. I’ve translated it in full because it is so generous and illuminating about this young pianist’s intuitive and intellectual absorption in music, It develops many points Debargue and I discussed when I met him at the Tchaikovsky competition last month in his first ever English-language interview.
Bertrand Boissard, the magazine’s editor (on Facebook here), asks him to explain more about the amazing things raised in my interview which many had found hard to believe. (Fortunately I had got it all right.)
Debargue gives chapter and verse on his training and says he hasn’t minded the whirlwind at all, but now he has to work. He talks in depth about his musical preferences and methods. Superb, stimulating reading not just about music but about life, and great to see his own country waking up at last to what the Russians discovered with delight last month.
An interview with Lucas Debargue
He is the pianist everyone is talking about. Going to Moscow as a complete unknown, Lucas Debargue won the fourth prize at the Tchaikovsky Competition. Besides this being in itself remarkable, he has also become the Moscow public’s new idol, generating even far beyond Russia a great wave of commentary - mainly raves - notably on social media. Boris Berezovsky sees in him a “genius”, Dmitri Bashkirov, not exactly the tenderest of people, predicts that within two years he could be one of the greats. For Jean-Marc Luisada, he has been “the greatest musical lesson we have had for years”. Valery Gergiev - whose extraordinarily intense focus on Lucas Debargue during the second gala after the competition won’t be forgotten - invited him to give a recital on July 14 at the Mariinsky.
I [Boissard] met Lucas Debargue in Paris. He had just returned to France: the day before, he had been in Russia. The moment the interview ended, he rushed off to take the train to rejoin his professor Rena Shereshevskaia in the suburbs. I went with him to the metro. Two people recognized him, grasped his hand, congratulated him, insisted on a photo - Russians on holiday in Paris. Before our meeting, I knew that at least three of the major artists’ agents in the world had contacted him. The pianist confirmed to me that he was about to sign with one of them. During the interview he spoke easily (“I’m sorry, I’m rabbiting on”), he appeared full of enthusiasm and passion. To hear him was to rediscover the ingrained pianist, you might call him possessed, who had made his mark on the competition.
BERTRAND BOISSARD: First of all, how are you doing? You’ve been living for more than a month in a whirlwind ...
LUCAS DEBARGUE: It wasn’t as mad as all that. I prefer being in slightly extreme conditions, rather than a temperate state where nothing much is happening. My life did take on a new intensity, a new scale. When I was in Paris I worked every day from early in the morning, then gave my piano lessons in the afternoon and returned to work at the Conservatoire. If I didn’t give myself this rhythm, I would soften up and nothing would happen. In Moscow I was in such a bubble that I quickly had to drop the rhythm I started with, which was seven or eight hours a day. Being there, moving about in this ambiance where there was so much energy, was actually very useful for interpretations. What is very hard is the time when you’re not playing. In a month at the competition I played only three hours in total. After the preliminary selection there was a week when we had to wait for the results and obviously you had to keep working because if you got through you might be playing the next day. Otherwise how could I go on? I’ve been absolutely enchanted by my stay in Moscow. I’ve met people of my age of such refinement, kindness, such goodwill, and of amazing culture. I am stunned by the knowledge I found in young Russians, and not only in those who came from literary backgrounds, about their national poetry, their painting, their history.
You see it as having been a trip into a kind of rapport, rather than a competition.
Absolutely. I was initially thinking about the competitive aspect. We were 60 pianists to begin with, not counting the other instrumentalists and singers. Overall, I was one of 200, it made for something like a student campus, but with a great nervousness in the air. As one went along, that feeling dissipated. Afterwards, what happened was this media delirium, this deluge of people asking you for your autograph. I’ve been so accustomed in France to a situation of complete isolation, solitude, this was such an extreme - it was like the extreme opposute. In fact, it didn’t bother me either way.
To return to what happened, how do you explain this symbiosis between you and the audience? Something happened. Can you explain or is it basically just a mystery?
It’s always worked pretty well with the public, I obviously have some communicative facility, I wouldn’t know how to explain it, I can only talk about how I feel the moment from within. After I played my second round recital - certainly my best performance during the competition - I was immediately thinking of everything I could have done and hadn’t. I was getting straight back into the score ready to start working over it, if it hadn’t been for all the people in the corridor, and everything going mad.
Afterwards I listened again to the recital replay and I was fairly happy, even though there were loads of little things, smudges, things to correct. Whatever, there was a kind of flow to it, a sense of movement, momentum, from start to finish. Maybe the public tuned into that. For me the number one objective is the create a kind of continuity. I think music has a very major influence on life. Even when I do my shopping I’m continuing to work. I don’t think of being on holiday, I always have music paper with me. When I’m on my long walks I’m always thinking. It’s the life that I want to live. Rest for me is just changing activities: I will stop playing in order to write some music for two or three days, or do some jazz, or just do nothing but listen to music and memorise passages. I will change what I’m doing but I never stop, that’s not possible.
Below Debargue’s 2nd round Moscow performance of Ravel
Do you think the competition had the effect of maybe multiplying some latent strength in you? Did you play the best of your life in Moscow?
No, no, it went fine, but I don’t think there was something special. I did quite well there but I can do better, I've already done a lot better than that. If there’s one thing I know - and I can be wrong in interpretation, in aesthetic choices, in how I spend my time - but if there’s one thing I’m totally sure about, it’s that really and truly I never play tricks with the music, I never try to cheat art. I live through art, for art, in art. I don’t need to say that I’m an artist so as to accumulate some kind of glory or special status over other people. I must carry on this artist’s life, it’s very important, and in Moscow I really felt in harmony with the environment, not just with the audience. A very positive energy.
“My aim is to stay who I am. If I let myself be swept away by all this flood of positivity I’ll drown”
One might say that that your personality exploded into the world stage thanks to the Medici broadcasts…
I am very aware of that.
... Which generated a host of comments around the whole world. Is it your view - and of course each artist must believe in himself - whether in this competition or some other way, you would have emerged, you would have got your talent recognized one way or another? Or do you think chance has played a part?
I don’t know, that’s a variable that I can’t guess. I’m on a roll at the moment but it could all turn very quickly. People might very well hate my interpretation of something. My aim is to stay who I am, it’s my only method of keeping a point of balance. If I let myself be swept away by all this flood of positivity I’ll drown. Because this will necessarily change - whether it calms down or does the reverse. I must keep a sufficiently thick shell and a sufficiently serious work focus to continue to show enough repertoire to get concerts, pick up things I’ve left on the side, learn new concertos. That’s my mission. It’s not to drown myself in waves of comments on the web. I must go on doing what I have been doing. It’s only that the competition has given me the opportunity to have more comfortable work prospects. That’s what I see and I’ll take that. And the possibility of playing in some amazing places. But from the point of view of my work on the piano and my life as an artist, what’s happened is all inside.
We’ve heard all sorts of things about you in the past month. Let’s go through some of these claims and you tell me if they’re actually right. Thus - you were “self-taught” or “largely self-taught”.
The problem is that something you can say in conversation doesn’t work when it’s written down. The naked truth about that is that from the age of 11 I had a piano teacher, Mme Meunier, who was apart from being a piano teacher a fabulous person who went along with my passion. I was throwing myself at that point into the romantic repertoire, things like Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, which I couldn’t play but I was totally crazed about getting something out of them, and rather than being strict and putting me on the beginners’ course, she let me romp about. It was exactly what was needed as it developed in me an overall vision of the world. I was absolutely devoted, passionate, it was the happiest time of my life, between 11 and 15. I was completely in music, nothing else existed. I was lucky enough not to have to manage being on my own, I was still living with my parents.
But Mme Meunier taught you the basics of piano technique, all the same?
No! She repeated over and over again like a leitmotif about the need to play with weight, to loosen the wrist, to use systematic fingering in scales, but I absolutely wasn’t listening. And when she realized I was having nothing to do with what she was saying, she stopped being a teacher and became a great musical friend.
And music theory?
It was a parallel discipline that one was obliged to have. But what was good is that at the Compiègne Conservatoire they just left me in peace to get on with it. They just gave me a year to validate the whole theory course, it went quickly, I was effective at it. I worked like a madman. I had no problems at the school, I was completely consumed by music. Where Mme Meunier was exceptional was that she did everything possible to get me properly schooled at the conservatoire, as well as seeing her once a week. The juries didn’t want to let me take the exams: I would arrive with one movement of this sonata, another movement of that sonata, which I played strictly as I wanted to, adding bars… if that is “self-taught”? One doesn’t ever learn by oneself, one learns from others. And the people who taught me were the composers and the great interpreters. I spent my time downloading Prokofiev and Rachmaninov, and I lived entirely with headphones on, buried in this music.
At what age did you start more academic training?
I landed up with Rena Shereshevskaya at the Rueil-Malmaison Conservatoire when I was 20 - I’m now working with her at the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris. There was something else: before seeing Rena, I met a person in Compiègne, someone really caring - at that time I was completely aimless - who got me to play for a music festival. I did three pieces I had in my head. She told me, “You should take serious lessons with someone.” At that time I was very much seeing myself as a defiant, provocateur, and at first I refused. But then I gave in, as I saw the prospect ahead of me just being so wretched. So I phoned Philippe Tamborini, who is a professor at the Conservatoire. When he heard me, he said, “You can’t play like that.” Gradually, our relationship became a collusion.
“There have been periods when I’ve been spending whole days exclusively on technical exercises”
This means actually you have become what you are, at least technically, in the space of just a few years. This means at the very least an amazing ability to adapt.
Obviously it meant I had to make myself stronger and more solid. In these recent years there have been periods when I’ve been spending whole days exclusively on technical exercises. I think I have a good capacity for synchronisation. I was very quickly able to play different things with the right and left hands. On the other hand I was incapable of playing a regular scale.
Another claim - true or false: is it true that you did not touch a piano for three years, roughly during your literary studies at university?
That's absolutely true. The only time I touched a piano would be at a party with friends where I improvised, it was very rare. I completely stopped the piano at 16, my life changed dramatically. I practised music another way, I played bass guitar.
And you did work in a supermarket?
Part-time for two years, yes.
Other things reported about you: that you learned, among other things, a work as difficult as Prokofiev’s third sonata by ear.
Yes. There is no genius in that, it's just the ability to concentrate and patience. Balzac was capable of learning entire books at first reading. It is much easier to do it in some professions than in others. We find it quite normal for an economist to have the exchange rate in his head at a split second. A work like Rachmaninov’s third concerto, if you take it note by note, it’s impossible - there are 15,000 notes. How can one learn 15,00 pieces of information? You have to have a capacity for synthesis, the music has to be in the image, in the effect. I learn everything by ear.
Before you even look at the score?
I learn by ear while I’m listening, I learn by ear with the score, without the piano, internally. My goal is to create a kind of momentum, an opening, a state that permits you to play it from the start to the finish. A continuity of soul. As if the music became a kind of genetic programming, became natural. almost physiological, as an extension of the body. It’s something that I’ve been looking for since my first contact with the piano. It’s completely natural to me. Maybe that’s what I have which is particular to me.
What are you going to do now ? Continue working with your teacher, throw yourself into concerts?
I love my life, spending time with my friends, talking about art with them, I love travelling, I need all that. I can’t stay riveted ten hours a day in a windowless studio in front of a piano. In the last two years, there have been entire weeks when I have not touched a piano. This seemed to scandalise some of the contestants, but on the contrary I have scores with me, I’ve got music in my head.
Do you think you still have a lot of work to do?
Enormous. But one must try, there’s a long long road ahead, and I know Rena is committed to the work.
Is she more than a teacher to you?
Yes. I can’t reduce the rapport that I have with her to a teacher-student relationship. She is an artist, deeply invested in her love of music. There’s a huge amount of love between us and sharing through music. This has made us communicate at an extraordinarily deep level.
Does she also guide your everyday life?
No, each of us does their own thing on that side.
Do you now feel a mission as a performer? What is your role, your objective as a performer?
“To not stop the music.” I don’t know who said that. To not obstruct the music, to not betray it. To let the music flow. Because music does circulate. I don’t believe in predestination - it's a matter of experience, and at some point in it there may be an opening, a clearing that lets something in which allows some people to become a kind of conveyor, a place of passage. And this can also augur an artistic vocation. I feel I have an enormous responsibility, as an interpreter, to have all this immense piano repertoire, these thousands of masterpieces, but I’m thinking less about the composers than the music itself. I’d put the music above the composers. I have infinite respect for these people who sacrificed their lives, sacrificed all distractions so as to manage to produce musical forms. It’s extraordinary, and yet one’s got to get to the point of forgetting them. The music is over and above composers, otherwise it would never cross through time.
For instance, I think there have never been such good Mozart playing as there is today. Fifty years ago you didn’t have it, where there was just Clara Haskil, and certainly there wasn’t any in the 19th century. Now, it’s begun to enter music, one’s begun to get this meticulousness, the attention that makes every note shine like a diamond.
On the other hand, I think we’ve arrived a saturation point with the music of Chopin and Liszt. The well’s empty, there needs to be renewal in a certain way that can draw up something new. Because the whole world has their idea about Chopin rubato, which is totally intolerable - even people who have totally different lives want to give their opinion as well about how to play Chopin.
We’ve got a saturation of Rachmaninov too, while Medtner ...
Yes, except that who knows Rachmaninov’s fourth concerto? And Prokofiev's first is great too. And Rachmaninov 1. Simply, you can’t play on your cufflinks so well in Rachmaninov’s fourth. The score is not nearly as neat the previous ones, where you get the sections, first theme, second theme, first development, second development… The fourth is like a flow from one end to the other. When I hear that concerto I think of the Orient, the languor of the East that you see in Baudelaire’s poem is not nearly as sharp as the previous ones, where there are sections, the first theme, the second theme, the first development, the second development ... The 4th is like a stream from the beginning to the end. When I listen to this concerto, I think of the East, to the languor of the East, what we see in Baudelaire's poem Parfum exotique, with the tamarind trees. Something noble, slow, fragrant, which is evolving like this for 30 minutes, you don’t know where to, with some sublime themes that pass by and then vanish.
“If I play Scarlatti sonatas it’s because I think I’ve found some ideas there that I’d like to share, and that I’ve never heard from anybody else”
You are going to have a lot of concert offers. Which raises the question of a new repertoire, concertos to learn. What direction will you take? Do you have some specific ideas?
This question makes me very happy, it fills me with enthusiasm just to hear it. My aim will be to choose carefully. Already I absolutely want to stand by a selection of Scarlatti sonatas, who is probably one of my three favourite composers. Some sonatas that are rarely played. In fact I want to do what I did in the second round of the competition, to pair a little-known work, like the Medtner sonata, with a very well-known one, like Gaspard de la nuit. If I play Scarlatti sonatas it’s because I think I’ve found some ideas there that I’d like to share, and that I’ve never heard from somebody else. I dream of recording the first seven sonatas of Beethoven, rather than the final pachyderms. Though sure, what pianist doesn’t want to lose himself in the Hammerklavier? Schubert attracts me a great deal. I’ve heard an interpretation by Sofronitzky of the last sonata, D960 in B flat. That’s the future. Nobody can play music like that. And I’d very much like to pick up the work there where Sofronitzky left it. That’s not nothing (laughs). I hope you won’t take it as some kind of pretentiousness. I would just like to try.
No, no, someone who has belief, who that such high goals, that's great.
I don’t feel very close or artistically attuned to Schumann and Brahms, I don’t know why. The only Brahms work I love and I would imagine mastering is the first concerto. Among my other secrets I absolutely must play Szymanowski’s 2nd sonata - he is one of my favourite composers - which is hardly every heard in the repertoire. Richter played it. If I were to play Scriabin it would be the 8th sonata, the least played of the last ones.
And the longest, some say, the weakest.
But that’s because there are hardly any performances. It’s been forgotten.
It has one of the most miraculous openings in Scriabin.
With these chords (he starts singing it) and the linked fifths chained like Bartók suites. And then Szymanowski, also Samuel Maykapar, a Russian composer unknown to the troops, who wrote pieces for children and above all a great piano sonata in C minor.
You’re teaching me.
We’re more acquainted with Liadov and Balakirev.
There is a great Balakirev sonata with a stupendous finale.
Yes, in B flat minor (he starts singing the opening of the finale, marking the rhythm on the table). Well, Medtner composed the Sonata Romantica as an open letter to Balakirev. With Medtner, we’re in another dimension in terms of creative genius. We’re really entering the Pantheon.
Is it true that you know 13 or 14 Medtner sonatas?
I couldn’t play them tomorrow. But it’s my dream to record them all. I know them very well, it's part of my favorite repertoire.
Do your tastes include Schoenberg and beyond?
Schoenberg is one of my favorite composers but not the other two of the Vienna School, Berg and Webern. What I prefer of Berg’s is the Altenberg Lieder.
An acoustic prism.
Yes, I do think it’s genius but I can’t listen to the Lyric Suite without pulling my hair out, even though it’s a marvel of formal concept. Maybe I just don’t understand it.
And Schoenberg's piano works?
Ah, I love them. Some people find him harsh, cold, but not me. There’s passion in Schoenberg. What I like best of his is the string quartets, with the soprano who starts up in the middle. Amazing! He’s a very great composer. One of the few who would have been capable of writing preludes and fugues like Bach.
And Messiaen, and later - Ligeti?
Messiaen, it's a little... I'm afraid of saying something too hard. At the same time you have to be honest, but I’m afraid of sounding like somebody being pretentious. There are extraordinary things in Messiaen, there’s a musical vision, a palette, a grammar. He made some absolutely brilliant analyses of Mozart concertos, he was a very great rhythmist. But I've never really been touched by Messiaen. As in breaking through the rhythms, the modes… It's a signature, but sometimes it’s more smoke than fire.
So in fact, you listen to orchestral music, to chamber music ...
It's a big disappointment when I talk with my pianist friends, they don’t even know the piano repertoire, after Chopin scherzos. Where I’ve got huge gaps is in the area of opera. I listen, but not enough. Symphonic repertoire isn’t my preference, it would rather be chamber music. And I’ve discovered a chamber music composer, Roslavets, an absolute genius.
“The piano’s just something mechanical. When you start putting life into this big machine that’s when the music begins to appear”
I’m going back to the competition, to something that struck me. You take a lot of time before you start each piece. Are you trying to get into some special state? Are you creating in your mind an ideal sound, like at the start of Ondine in Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit?
That is very important, the same as a painter needs to breach the blank canvas or the sculptor his raw material. Silence is the raw material of the musician. It's abstract but you have to manage to imagine it as matter. The sound? The piano’s like a coffin, it’s just something mechanical. I’ve never made a fetish of the piano as an instrument, it doesn’t excite me. People go into ecstasies: “Ooh, I’ve got a piano in m living room!” I prefer not to have one in my living room. When you start putting life into this big machine that’s when the music begins to appear. I’ve heard contestants who played all the notes, in all the right tempi, all the right nuances, perfect - but the sound had no life in it, one hears the sound of the piano, not the music. When one focuses on a point one can attain that sound. There’s something there you might call evidence, or truth.
Which pianists do you admire? Does an aerolite like Glenn Gould interest you?
Gilels, Richter, Horowitz, people where interpretation warmth is prime. I do admire Glenn Gould and not only as a performer, he’s a philosopher, someone who found a way to increase the mental capacity, levels of consciousness. He was a kind of monk, a sage. Music is one of his methods of transmission but he played in an extremely bizarre way. I love Pogorelich, his recordings. Among the French pianists, Marcelle Meyer (1897-1958) - I admire her enormously. Otherwise, Zimerman, Sokolov, Berezovsky...
All the Tchaikovsky competition rounds preserved on Medici TV
UK dates in the XV Tchaikovsky competition winners tour, under Valery Gergiev, are 26 October 2015 at Cadogan Hall, London, and 28 October at Symphony Hall, Birmingham